A Black Book on Jihad

Note from Robert Royal: I am in transit from Rome towards home, via some other brief responsibilities in New York City. We will be bringing you a final report on the Synod, but not until later this week. Instead of the kind of quick news commentary we’ve provided almost daily for the past month, what we most need now is a close reading and more considered reflection on the final text, which is long, complicated, and written in Italian. It only reached me yesterday, too late for today and not to be dealt with through the fog of jet-lag. And besides the text itself, we need an evaluation of the whole process that led up to it. To anticipate just a bit, the worst outcomes were generally avoided, thanks to some heroic work in Rome by quite dedicated people. But there’s much still in play that can be turned to worrying purposes by those with a will to do so. Which makes it all the more urgent that all of us stay alert and keep abreast of the kinds of developments that will have an impact on the whole Church in the near future – and probably for decades to come.

Anyone genuinely curious about the history of the 20th century has probably heard about the Black Book of Communism, an exhaustive account of the damage Marxist ideology inflicted around the globe. Its authors estimated that Communism claimed the lives of about 100 million people.  That sobering, round figure tends to stick in the mind, even if some seek to explain it away.

Robert Spencer’s new book The History of Jihad: From Muhammad to ISIS – along with Raymond Ibrahim’s Sword and Scimitar – gives us something akin to the Black Book of Communism. It’s a powerful account of the domineering brutality that Jihad has inflicted near and far, from its bloody 7th century origins to the present day. As Spencer makes abundantly clear to anyone willing to take seriously the facts he summons up, “Islamic piety always underlay the jihad.”  For this reason, he is only too likely to be belittled or scorned.

There is no firm number of total deaths by way of jihad over the centuries. Might it exceed the 100 million mark?  It likely approaches that figure in India alone; the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Will Durant argued in 1935 that the “Mohammedan conquest of India is probably the bloodiest story in history.” This is hardly on anyone’s radar, and Spencer fills a major gap in our understanding by detailing what occurred in the subcontinent in all its vivid, revolting detail.

In the Muslim mind, infidels are to be given three options: convert, pay, or die.  But the payment option is offered only to “people of the book”: Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians. Hindus and Buddhists aren’t on that list, so only two options remained: submission or death. Allah the most merciful?

In the first (8th century) foray, the instructions were as clear as day: kill all the combatants, arrest and imprison their children, and grant protection only to those who submit.  Massacres ensued in rapid succession, but killing so many can get exhausting. When the general on the ground, faced with the practical difficulty of mass extermination, started encouraging surrender and granting protection without conversion, his superior back in Iraq was incensed – and sent word: “God said: ‘Give no quarter to infidels but cut their throats. Then you shall know that this is the command of the great God.’”

When another leader, centuries later, displayed sympathetic inclinations towards non-Muslims, his younger brother (Aurangzeb) had him beheaded and reportedly wept for joy upon receiving his head. This was the guy who gave the capitol of modern day Pakistan its name.  In 1670, he not only destroyed the temple at Mathura but renamed it Islamabad. Looting temples, often stocked with precious metals, was a prime source of enrichment and a precursor to razing them to the ground, which jihadists did systematically.

Another little known but highly consequential event was the battle of Manzikert (near Armenia) in 1071 in which the supposedly still stout Byzantines were routed. This paved the way for the Greek peoples inhabiting Asia Minor to be overrun by the Turks (which subsequently gave rise to the Ottoman Empire and modern day Turkey).


Spencer documents the whole history of jihad in a chronological manner. This, surprisingly, had never been done before. He proceeds century by century, which means that different geographical regions are treated side by side. Like a spectator at a tennis match, the reader’s eyes go from west to east and back again, over and over, following sanctioned episodes of execution, plunder, rape, torture, enslavement, destruction, humiliation, and oppression. It is an utterly devastating approach.

He relies heavily on contemporary sources that exhume long buried accounts of great human agonies inflicted upon infidels. They also reveal a mindset that regards killing as a “good action” for which jihadists hope to “receive future reward.” Spencer also includes a telling aside about the jihadist origin of the word Assassins.

The jihad actually reached Rome in 846; invaders looted the basilicas of St. Peter and St. Paul – both of which were outside its walls, which they were unable to breach. Thereafter, necessary precautions were implemented because:

It had not yet become customary for the Roman Pontiff to proclaim the peacefulness of Islam and benign character of the Qur’an, and to decry the building of walls.

Robert Spencer

Suffice it to say Spencer has made it his life’s work to follow the counsel of previous popes, such as Sixtus IV (15th century), who warned us “not to remain plunged in. . . inertia” while Islam advances.

Spencer recently left Catholicism for Orthodoxy. It might be more accurate to say Church leaders left him, or prodded him out. This is a man who has been banned from entering the United Kingdom, while radical imams there freely proclaim that Islam will dominate the world. But he has been hardly more welcome to share his erudition in dioceses here or regarded more positively by the U.S. Bishops Conference. Whether it emanates from Church or State, it is utter madness that drives such contempt for the man and his message.

Astute observers such as William Kilpatrick have been warning that the Church’s inadequate and inaccurate stance vis-a-vis Islam today could well lead to a large scale loss of confidence. Spencer apparently decided enough was enough.

This book does us a favor by shining a light on a supremacist creed that stands in opposition not only to the West, but to every other form of governance and law.

Yet Islam is the religion that the Left, which supposedly detests hegemony, most seems to esteem.

We don’t believe jihadists’ plainly stated motivations in part because we have lost much of our own faith – along with a sense of faith altogether. The last chapter – aptly titled “The West Loses the Will to Live” – is dispiriting precisely because our feeble posture today foolishly dismisses the peril obviously evident from the litany of atrocities Spencer chronicles throughout the book. It substantiates what we are ultimately immersed in: a great spiritual crisis


*Image: Procession of Crusaders Around Jerusalem, July 14, 1099 by Jean-Victor Schnetz,1841 [Palace of Versailles, France]

Matthew Hanley’s new book, Determining Death by Neurological Criteria: Current Practice and Ethics, is a joint publication of the National Catholic Bioethics Center and Catholic University of America Press.