The mind and ‘scholarship’ of the charlatan Robert Spencer: Part Two

by Omar Shtewi

The Scholarship

Here I would like to examine a particular example of what Robert Spencer would describe – in an act of linguistic terrorism, one could say – as his scholarship.

On Thursday 7 July 2011, Pamela Geller posted on her blog a titillating item entitled “Spencer:  Is the Hajj an act of apostasy?”

The implication of the title, of course, is that the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, which is obligatory for all Muslims at least once in their lives, could be an act of apostasy.

We are clearly to believe that in the 1400-year history of the Islamic religion, Muslims have been engaged – unbeknownst to them and to the great halls of learning across the world – in an an act of paganism.  Only Robert Spencer – who has no qualifications in Islamic studies – has access to the truth.  He has, indeed, in an act of Indiana Jones-like digging, discovered the truth.  And it is earth-shattering.

Geller introduces Spencer’s exciting findings thus:

Atlas exclusive: my AFDI/SIOA colleague Robert Spencer, one of the world’s leading scholars of Islam [saying it doesn’t make it so, Pam], shares with us some of research [sic] he’s doing for his next book

The reader should be aware that there are two versions of Spencer’s theory.  The first – which, for the most part, I will be using in this examination – was later taken down and amended by a panic-stricken Spencer in response to comments left by myself and another individual.  Geller then replaced it with an amended version.  I will include the comments that I left later in this post, along with screen-grabs of the original article (to prove that he really did say these things), the text itself and Spencer’s responses.

Spencer begins his adventure into the alternate reality of Planet Earth with this assertion:

In the course of research for my forthcoming book, Did Muhammad Exist?, I have been in contact with a European researcher who has given me some extraordinary information about the origins of the rituals that Muslims perform during the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca.

Which European researcher?  Is he known?  Has he published?  Does he have an online presence?  Why not name him?  Is it the case that, in keeping with the drama that pervades Jihad Watch and Geller’s blog, the “researcher” wishes to remain anonymous?  We appear to be in Dan Brown territory.  You will find though, that even Dan Brown’s poor efforts are better researched than what dribbles from the pen of Robert Spencer, non-PhD.

After mentioning that Mecca is named only once in the Koran itself, and that the Kaaba predates Muhammad, Spencer poses an important Danbrownism “What’s the real story?”  It certainly is nowhere to be seen in Spencer’s writing.

But it is what follows that is more interesting to those who follow Spencer and watch in disbelief as his views are lapped up by American news networks, English journalists and bloggers and, chillingly, by Anders Breivik, the mass-murderer of Norway.

A Scholar without the Tools

The key point is that Robert Spencer knows no Arabic.  He yet insists that he can speak intelligently about the Arabic language – and others, since there is no topic that Spencer will leave alone –  and maintain credibility.  He has made no secret of his absolute ignorance of the language of the Koran (despite the fact that he has written a “guide” to that very holy text) and yet relies on analysis of the Arabic language to make his point that the Hajj is in fact a Hindu ritual.  He states:

“…historically, Arabia has many connections with the Indus Valley. The presence of India in the region, up to Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea, is well documented. Some have speculated that even the Arabic language as such has many Sanskrit rootsArabic is actually an Indo-European language, so this is not by chance. The very word “Arab” may derive from ara-vat or arva, meaning a horse in Sanskrit. The “land of the horses” gives us Aravasthan, from which may come Arabia

“Some have speculated…”  Who has speculated?  Who precisely, has speculated that, in total opposition to the evidence, the Arabic language is actually Indo-European and therefore related to Sanskrit (and therefore Hindi, Urdu and the languages of Europe)?

“The very word “Arab” may derive from…”  Let us examine the Arabic notion of the word “Arab”.  Surely, the people to whom Spencer is referring have in their own language some indication of the meaning of their name?

The word Arab (عربي) comes from the root ‘A-R-B (ع- ر- ب).  In the Arabic language itself, the root designates the Arab people – that is, those who speak the Arabic language.  The root also has the wider meaning of expression as we see in the verb اعرب.  It’s meaning, and here I use Hans Wehr’s widely respected and used Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic, can be “to make plain or clear, state clearly, declare…, express (unmistakably), utter, voice, proclaim, make known, manifest, give to understand…, give expression”.  In other words – to make oneself understood in the familiar language of the Arabs.  From this verb, we have a noun اعراب – “manifestation, declaration, proclamation, pronouncement” and so on.

If Spencer had even a beginner’s grasp of Arabic, he would have been able to deduce this himself.  Instead, though, he goes on to claim that his Sanskrit theory of the origins of the Arabic language is what gives rise to the word “Arabia”.

Here again, his total ignorance of the language in question is clear.  Because, there is no word in the Arabic language for Arabia.  This is a Latin word.  In Arabic itself, Arabia is ‘The Arab Peninsula’ or ‘The Peninsula of the Arabs’.  Nice try Bob.

He goes on to describe the historical presence of Hindus in the Peninsula and then has this to say:

There is also a good deal of evidence, by the way, Muhammad was not a name, but a title usually given to victorious warlords, just as Mahatmat (great soul) was not the name of Gandhi, but his title. Sanskrit etymology offers an elucidation of this: Muhammad comes from Mahan Madah: “a person of great inspiration.” But it can also be understood in a hostile sense, implying “a person of a proud and haughty temperament.”

That Arabic, like other Semitic languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Amharic) is root-based is well known and evident even to beginners.  Except Robert Spencer – because he is not even a beginner.

Does his claim that Muhammad is a Hindu title and not, in fact, an Arabic name, stand up to scrutiny?  Not even the lightest scrutiny.

It is clear to any Arabic speaker that Muhammad has a root which is found in many other words in our language.  Mr Wehr, whose dictionary mercifully has its basis in reality, provides clarity for English speakers, as to the root h-m-d (hamida – حمد).  The broad meaning of this root has to do with praise.  The first meaning of the verb hamida – حمد is as follows: to praise, commend, laud, extol”.  The noun derived from this root is hamd (حمد).

If Spencer knew any Arabic at all, he would know that we use this noun on an almost daily basis, when we praise God.  The link is clear.  Unless, like Robert Spencer, you are intent on making a mockery of the whole idea of scholarly research.

“Muhammad”  derives its meaning from the root حمد and that meaning is: “praised, commendable, laudable”.  It is staggering the Spencer does not even consider this.

But he doesn’t stop there.

Around the Kaaba is a restricted area, the haram, extending in some directions as far as 12 miles, into which only Muslims may enter. Some scholars have interpreted Haram as a derivation of the Sanskrit term Hariyam, i.e. the precinct (yam) of Lord Hari, alias Vishnu.

Referring to haram, he actually provides the truth in his own words, but his intellectual vacuity is such that he hardly notices.  He states that “some scholars” – which scholars?  Where?  What are their names? – have interpreted “haram” as being of Sanskrit origin.

In fact, the root h-r-m (حرم) in Arabic carries the meaning of restricted.  Returning to Wehr for a precise definition, we find the following of the verb harima: “to be forbidden, prohibited, interdicted, unlawful, unpermitted”.  The second (stronger) form of the verb is defined thus: “to declare.. sacred, sacrosanct, inviolable, or taboo”.  Interestingly, the first form of the verb has the Christian connotation of excommunication, which is mirrored in the Hebrew cognate חרמ.  Spencer clearly knows no Hebrew either.  Shame he never found time to study any foreign language.

Would Spencer go so far as to say that Hebrew is also an Indo-European language?  Would he, on that basis, claim that there is no such thing as a Semitic language at all, since Arabic is so clearly the most complete of that language group?  Questioning its provenence is clearly to throw the Hebrew language – and the Jews with it – in with the Hindus.  I think not.  His hate is reserved only for the Arabs and the Muslims more broadly.

Persian or Arabic…  Who cares?

Not Bob Spencer.  In the same way that English and, say, Polish, both use a version of the Latin alphabet, one would look very silly indeed if one couldn’t identify the difference between these two languages.  One would look sillier still if one mixed them up in the process of claiming expertise in either Polish or English history/religion and attempting to promulgate new and bizarre theories about them.

And so it is that Spencer does not know the difference between Arabic and Persian.  Yes, to the untrained eye they appear to be the same language, in as far as Persian uses an altered version – like other languages – of the Arabic alphabet.  Of course, in order to confuse the two languages, one would have to be absolutely illiterate in both.  And Spencer is.

For he claims, in the throes of this embarrassing extravaganza of pseudo-history, that the word namaz meaning ‘prayer’ in several (actual) Indo-European languages including Persian and Urdu, is Arabic.  Oh dear.

What Spencer means is that namaz is the word for Islamic prayer commonly used by Pakistanis, Iranians, Turks and Kurds.  None of these people, brown though they invariably are, qualify as Arabs.  This sort of error would get an undergraduate laughed out of a seminar.  (It is, I would venture, yet another reason why real scholars of Islam would never deign to face Spencer in a debate).

The point that Spencer does not know the difference between Arabic and Persian was made by a reader of Geller’s blog calling himself Saleh.  You can see his comment in the screen grab below.  You can click on it to enlarge.

Spencer Schooled in the Basics

Most embarrassing though, is not Spencer’s absolutely ridiculous error, but his incredible response to it.  The reader should remember that Spencer promotes himself as a scholar and is frequently lauded as such on mainstream media and, of course, by his colleagues in the Transatlantic anti-Muslim hate movement.

He answers the suggestion of Saleh and me, by claiming – against hope, since I am an Arabic speaker – that namaz is ‘common usage in Arabic’.  To prove it he provides…  a Wikipedia entry.  Leaving aside for one moment that any undergraduate would be penalised for using such a low resource, we must also consider the fact that the Wikipedia entry does not even substantiate his point.  His pitiful effort at a retort can be seen below.

An embarrassment to undergraduates

Here is my rather scathing comment:

Spencer schooled again…

I will make one further point about Spencer’s lack of knowledge of the Arabic language, or Semitic languages in general.

He attempts, laughably, to suggest that the name God himself in Arabic (Allah) is actually Sanskrit.  If that is so, Christians and Jews also have a big problem.

For you see, “Allah” is a cognate of the Hebrew “Elohim” (which is plural).  We know this because the root a-l-h is common to both – the Arabic root being Alif-Lam-Ha and its Hebrew sister being Aleph-Lamed-hey.  If Arabic is Indo-European and the word “Allah” is Sanskrit, then Hebrew must also surely be a product of the Indian Subcontinent.  In this case, there is surely no such thing as a Semitic language at all and, in fact, Judaism and by extension Christianity, must also be corruptions of Hinduism.

This is, in fact, the conclusion of the “researcher” that Spencer claims is the source of all of these ground-breaking truths.

As a matter of fact, a short Google search will reveal precisely who this “researcher” is.  In honour of Robert Spencer, and to stoop to his level for just a moment, I will provide the Wikipedia article which deals with this great scholar.  See it here.

The originator of these theories, dear reader, is the Indian Hindu nationalist and charlatan P.N. Oak.

Mr Oak believes that not only is Islam a corruption of Hinduism, but Christianity too.  Oh dear.  If Mr Spencer is so keen to promote the paganism of Islam, perhaps he can furnish us with another article where he demonstrates that his own Christianity is, indeed, a Hindu religion.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Bob Spencer.  Charlatan and shyster.


Following my comments to Bob at Geller’s blog, the article, in its original form, was removed, along with the comments left by Saleh and myself.  The proof is here in this screen grab:

Bob Spencer. Champion of free speech.

An amended article was later posted by Geller, with some of the glaring Persian-related errors removed.  A band aid on a gaping wound, if you ask me.

Additionally, I emailed both Spencer and Geller to ask them to put my comments back.  Spencer, the great debater, did not answer my emails.  He has not answered my emails since.  I will include them in a later post.