by Samir Khalil Samir, sj
Muslim criticism against the Pope’s remarks is mounting, but no one has actually read the whole speech. Benedict XVI criticises violence and proposes a reasonable alternative that could lead to a new Golden Age.
Negative reactions in the Arab and Muslim world to the remarks made by Benedict XVI at Regensburg University are exaggerated and misplaced. Protest marches are being organised everywhere in ways that bring to mind what happened in the wake of the publication of the blasphemous Muhammad cartoons. But one thing is clear. No one, and I mean NO ONE, has fully read what the Pope said.
An English translation of the speech, which was in German, was released yesterday, a French version is not yet ready, and no translation has been made in any Eastern language. Therefore, all the attacks so far are based on a few quotes and excerpts liberally taken by Western news agencies on what the Pope said about Islam, which was only ten per cent of his speech. But this ten per cent must be understood against the whole thing.
The Pope’s speech was a prolusion, an inaugural speech, delivered to an assembly of faculty and students at the beginning of the new academic year. By definition, it was an academic exercise, interdisciplinary, and the eyes and ears of scholars and would-be scholars. Moreover, the full text of the speech released by the Vatican Press Office does not have any notes, which will be supplied at a later date.
It is necessary to keep in mind that what the Pope did was prepare and deliver a speech as an academic, a philosopher, a top theologian whose arguments and fine points may not be easily grasped.
The media – which should indulge in some self-criticism of its own – picked out those remarks from the speech that it could immediately use and superimposed them on the current international political context, on the ongoing confrontation between the West and the Muslim world, taking a step back into what Samuel Huntington called a ‘Clash of civilisations’. In reality, in his speech the Pope outlined a path that runs contrary to this view. The goal he has in mind is actually to engage others in a dialogue and of the most beautiful kind.
Initial reactions in the Muslim world showed that the Pope’s was misunderstood. Some reports actually said that at Regensburg University the Pope had delivered a lecture on ‘technology’ rather than ‘theology’ (evidently something got lost in the English translation). Even though newspapers eventually printed corrections, it was the following day. All in all, it goes to show how no one really understood what he said.
Comments made by Western Muslims were superficial and fed the circus-like criticism. In a phone-in programme on al-Jazeera yesterday, many viewers called in to criticise the Pope but no one knew about what. These were just emotional outbursts in response to hearsay concerning the Pope talking about jihad and criticising Islam, when in fact all that is false. Let me say why.
Quoting the Qur’an
The Pope quoted only one verse from the Qur’an, the one that says that “There is no compulsion in religion” (2, 256). In the West, Muslims quote this verse all the time as proof that freedom of conscience and faith are part of Islam. If the Pope really wanted to attack Islam and show how bad it is, he could have picked any one of many dozens of verses like Sūrah 2, 191-193, in which Muslims re urged to kill those guilty of al-fitnah (sedition). For, in the name of Islam, thousands of people have been killed because as the Qur’an says, “Al-Fitnah is worse than killing”.
It was with this verse on their lips that people said they wanted to kill Abdul Rahman, an Afghan man who converted to Christianity.
To many, becoming Christian is seen as “sedition” (fitnah) from the community, an act that is better dealt with by killing the perpetrator.
Instead the Pope chose the most positive and more open verse and made a comment about its history. He told his audience that the verse came from Muhammad’s period in Madinah, a time when he was weak and under threat. Even the Saudi-published Qur’an, which is considered the most official, places Sūrah 2 in Muhammad’s early, Madinan period, when the prophet was a refugee, without an army.
Reason and violence
Normally, speeches by the Pope are never preceded by a title. This inaugural address however was different; it had a title – “Faith, Reason and the University. Memories and Reflections” – because it was part of academic exercise. If one reads through the whole document, one would find that the word “Reason”, as the key point in the message, appears 46 times.
Islam, Judaism, and especially Western culture also do appear, but the text the Pope delivered was a criticism of the concept of Reason as it evolved in the West since the Enlightenment.
A few days earlier he had also criticised German bishops for giving precedence to “social” rather than “religious” projects (like building churches or evangelising).
In the speech Pope was trying to show how western society – including the Church – has become secularised by removing from the concept of Reason its spiritual dimension and origins which are in God. In early Western history, Reason was not opposed to faith, according to the Pope, but instead fed on it.
During the speech Benedict XVI quoted from a recent book by Prof Theodore Khoury, an expert on Byzantium, who has reprinted the text of a late Middle Ages dialogue between a Byzantine emperor, Manuel II Paleologus, and a Persian Muslim.
The Holy Father chose this text because it contained a “key sentence” in which the emperor criticises the Muslim for Islam’s violence as exemplified by the command to spread the faith by the sword. No historian can deny the fact that Muhammad and, after him, the caliphs often used violence to convert conquered peoples. This does not mean that Muhammad liked violence but it does mean that he was a man of his time. Fighting among Arab tribes was widespread, including over grazing land.
The first biography of Muhammad written by a Muslim was titled “Book of [Military] Campaigns” (the term is Maghāzī which has been transliterated as razzias).
Certainly, one can criticise Emperor Manuel for Islam did not spread by violence alone. In Indonesia, Malaysia and some African countries Islam was brought by Muslim traders. In other countries it arrived via Sufi mystics (who could also be warriors as was the case in Morocco).
But for the emperor, “violence is something unreasonable [. . .] incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul”. It is this sentence that got the Pope’s attention, so much so that he repeated it five times.
Basically then, the message is that anyone who engages in violence ceases being a believer; anyone, Christian or Muslim, who goes along with violence goes against Reason and God, whose is the source of Reason.
The West’s mutilated Reason
The other thrust in the Pope’s speech was a critique of the West for removing everything spiritual from the concept of Reason.
In Greek Logikos means “rational” and “spiritual”, and until the 8th-9th century, Muslims had a similar word borrowed from the Christians that meant both “rational and spiritual”.
The Pope’s thoughts are thus quite close to Muslim criticism of the secularised West. Muslims seem to be saying: You have technology, science, everything, except the essential since you marginalised spirituality and God.
In a unique way, the Pope is criticising the West with an “attempt [. . .] at a critique of modern reason from within” which “has nothing to do with putting the clock back to the time before the Enlightenment and rejecting the insights of the modern age.” Through this attempt at a critique from “within” the Pontiff wants to show that efforts to exclude God are not enlightened but a false “enlightenment”. Instead, once this is taken into account, the “positive aspects of modernity are to be acknowledged unreservedly.”
Benedict XVI does not want to reject modern Reason; he wants to broaden its meaning. In so doing, he joins Muslims in criticising the atheist view of Reason whilst offering a critique from “within” in order to “broaden” it. “Only thus do we become capable of that genuine dialogue of cultures and religions so urgently needed today.”
Therefore, the goal is to start a universal dialogue based on “Reason”. Violence stands against human Reason (a danger that looms over Islam) as does the belief that Reason is opposed to faith and spirituality.
Universal dialogue and Islamic Golden Age
Rather than criticising Islam, the Pope is actually offering it a helping hand by suggesting that it do away with the cycle of violence. He also asks Islam not to leave the cycle of “Reason” or better still, he urges it to engage Christianity in a dialogue for reasons related to ethics.
The Middle Ages were the Golden Age of the Muslim world. Why? Because at that time a true humanism based on Greek thinking had developed in the lands of Islam. Upon the request of caliphs, Arab and Syriac Christians translated into Arabic everything that was known by and about Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Anaxagoras and the whole of traditional philosophy. In the field of medicine, Hunayn Ibn Ishaq, a Christian who died in 873 AD, translated all the works of Hippocrates and Galen from Greek into Arabic.
For centuries Christian translators acted as teachers for Muslim scholars. Through them Hellenistic thinking was integrated into Arab, Persian, Turkish and other cultures. And it is against this background that Islam experienced its ‘Golden Age’, an age that saw thinkers like Averroes flower. We Arabs know that this was the most beautiful period in Islam’s history, which ended in the 12th century.
Many Muslim thinkers today realise that an Islamic Renaissance today requires looking back at the world of Medieval ideas. In fact, we must heed the Pope’s suggestions; we must face, assimilate, and evaluate modern thinking the way Christian translators and then Muslim scholars did in the Middle Ages.
Today Islam is tempted to reject Western culture as a whole dismissing it as “pagan” (which is partly true). However, this means failing to separate the wheat from the chaff.
As a great scholar, the Pope has dared to do so. With great acumen he has said yes to Reason, but one that is not robbed of its spiritual content; yes to enlightenment but no to its anti-religious version.
The Pope is proposing a universal dialogue open to all religions as well as agnostics based on a “broader” definition of Reason. For this reason, I want to tell my Muslim friends: Before talking, read. When you have read, think and try to understand. Even we Christians can have a hard time trying to grasp what the Pope says.
Theo-Cons and fundamentalists as Siamese twins
Some Muslim fundamentalists have said that the Pope now speaks for the Theo-Cons and has become the instigator for a “crusade against Islam”.
Sadly, some people cannot avoid seeing the conflict between the West and Islam except in political terms. Since the Pope is a Westerner, it must logically follow that he is “against” us. And having failed to understand what the Pope says, all that they can say is that he criticised jihad and for this reason he certainly “must” be an enemy.
This explains why in so many Muslim countries, people are taking to the streets to protest as they did for the Muhammad cartoons controversy. In so doing they actually confirm what the Pope said, namely that violence is against Reason and God.
These fundamentalists want to defend Islam in the West by resorting to violent methods, but all they do is confirm to the West that it is right in condemning Islam.
From this standpoint it is clear that Theo-Con violence that fuels wars and Muslim fundamentalism are like “Siamese twins” that can only help each other.
If violence and street protests should grow because of fundamentalism, Islam will further spiral downward into its own crisis.
Only by listening to the Pope’s suggestions, and those of a few Muslim intellectuals, can Islam’s chances for renewal become real. It is high time that Islam deal with modernity; not to be swallowed up by it, but rather to take what good it has to offer and improve on it.