Sardar will not be pleased to learn that revisionist history is alive and thriving. Robert Spencer's book is a sympathetic account of its recent developments. Its inflammatory title as well as its prominent jacket blurb ("Are Jihadists Dying for a Fiction?") seem to promise sensational disclosures, not least because the author is director of the website Jihad Watch, hardly a guarantee of objectivity on matters Islamic. Moreover, though Spencer describes himself as having "been studying Islamic theology, law and history in depth for more than three decades", those years of toil don't seem to have paid off; he doesn't read Arabic (or indeed, French and German, languages indispensable for any serious work in the scholarly literature). The Arabic sources he cites are all taken from the works of others.
As it turns out, Spencer's book is clearly written, reasonably objective and refreshingly tentative. In moving from such issues as the historicity of Muhammad (which he doubts), the composition and collection of the Koranic text (on which the most interesting recent work has been done), or the various hypotheses that surround Islamic origins (some — including his own — dafter than others), Spencer strives to represent the work of his "small band of scholars" with a fair degree of accuracy. For anyone who wants to get some sense of recent scholarship on such hopelessly vexed topics, Spencer's book is probably a good place to start. It is not, however, a good place to stop, and that is for two reasons.
First, despite Spencer's efforts, there is an immense gulf between his glib summaries and the scholarly studies on which he bases them. To turn from his breezy pronouncements to the work of such historians as Patricia Crone or Fred M. Donner or Günter Lüling or the anonymous scholar of Syriac who writes under the name of Christoph Luxenberg, is to witness the difference between genuine scholarship, with its meticulous, almost ant-like palping of the slightest crumb of possible evidence, together with its respect for the least glimmer of evidence — whether from an inscription or a coin or an archeological site or a snippet of text in Armenian or Syriac or Greek — and the sort of tabloid simulacrum Spencer offers.
Still, Spencer's careful scholars can be quite as myopic as he is glassy-eyed. Thus, when "Christoph Luxenberg" concludes that the Koranic word for "virgins", when construed against its putative Syriac subtext, actually means "grapes", plain old common sense raises its drowsy head. What scripture, what prophet, would offer those panting for martyrdom a bunch of grapes as a reward? What, not even a pomegranate? Philology too has its limits.