Pope Benedict and the Muslims
by Stephen Schwartz
It seems to have been too much to expect that the educated West, in dealing with the challenge of Islam after the atrocities experienced in New York and Washington five years ago, would do so in a spirit of caution, precision, and rationality -- thus reflecting and improving on the values for which the West has long been praised. Instead, as time wears on and the dread "clash of civilizations" becomes more profound and serious, insightful reportage on the Muslim world becomes mush in the mainstream media, intellectual constructs intended to make distinctions, rather than to confuse them are plagiarized and vulgarized, and many of those who claim to embrace liberal values and open dialogue, on both sides of the widening abyss, become indistinguishable from screeching bigots. The situation is not helped by the prevalence of sound-bite commentary and blog columns said or written with no obvious reflection.
The effort to moderate the conflict between cultures, by enabling rational voices on both sides of the divide to be heard, appears doomed. The opinions of the informed and sensible will continue to be drowned out by the witticisms of those proud of their ignorance and cynicism; the most subtle and obscure issues will be transformed into mass-market products for the consumption of lumpen intellectuals. The religious instinct toward meditation, withdrawal from the noise of the world, and refinement of spirituality will be crushed in the chaos of rhetoric.
A fresh example of the dialogue of the deaf between Muslims and non-Muslims, has made its gaudy appearance, with controversy over a lecture on philosophy by Pope Benedict XVI at a university in Bavaria. The lecture has, it seems, not been read in full by very many people outside the Catholic milieu, and it is extremely doubtful that if read it will be comprehended by a large audience. The text presents a Catholic commentary on various philosophical issues that are as impenetrable to the common reader as the arguments of Muslim theologians would naturally appear to those outside the elite of the Islamic community.
I am not adept in Christian theology and will not attempt a thorough exegesis of Benedict's lecture, which I have, however, read in full. I am a traditional, spiritual Muslim who has worked in close harmony with Catholic institutions for a long time, in solidarity with oppressed Catholic believers in such places as Nicaragua and the Balkans. I have published and am writing more on the considerable influence of the Islamic intellect on Catholic sensibility - from the revival of Greek philosophy by the 11th century Persian Ibn Sina and the 12th century Spanish Arab Ibn Rushd (Avicenna and Averroes in the West) to the reading of the Sufi classics by 14th century Franciscan mystics and their Spanish Catholic successors.
The uproar over Benedict's lecture mainly focuses on a single paragraph near the beginning, in which the pope cited Manuel II Paleologus, a Byzantine (i.e. eastern Christian) ruler, in an agitated condemnation of Islam: "Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached." The quotation appears almost gratuitous, at first look discontinuous with the rest of the text. If it seems on its own to be inflammatory at best, it is surrounded by an aureole of blunders. Benedict cites and dismisses a verse or ayat in Qur'an, "There shall be no compulsion in religion," providing the correct textual reference (2:256) but mistaking a verse for a surah or chapter. The pope also freelances some inaccurate analysis of the place of this ayat in the chronology of Qur'an's revelation to Muhammad (peace be upon him). Benedict goes on to elaborate on the Byzantine princeling's comments as a criticism of the spread of religion by force.
There are other problems with accuracy in the lecture. Benedict refers to the 11th century Spanish Arab theologian and literary theorist Ibn Hazm by the incorrect name "Ibn Hazn," in references drawn from a secondary source, the French scholar Roger Arnaldez. Benedict ascribes to Ibn Hazm the belief that God not only did not need to endow humanity with truth, but could have kept the dwellers on the earth in a state of idolatry. In this way, Benedict attempts to contrast the acceptance of reason in Christianity with a denial of divine reason in Islam.
The topic is an extremely complex one and clarity about it will not be furthered by simplistic jibes. Ibn Hazm has never been considered a mainstream figure in Islam, and also has the unfortunate distinction, as noted by the eminent scholar of Islamic history, Bernard Lewis, of being the sole Muslim thinker in the classic period to write a sustained polemic against Judaism as a faith. Unfortunately, ibn Hazm's writings, more than those of any other prominent Muslim, have been misrepresented and exploited by superficial modern commentators, so Benedict has plenty of company. Adding my own opinion, God left the antecedents of the modern Christians and Jews in a state of idolatry for a long time before the coming of Abraham and Jesus; and idolatry or polytheism still exists in many parts of the world. I do not intend to argue the foundations of Christianity with the Pope. But Islam proclaims Adam (peace be upon him) as the first prophet, implying that God, creation, and religion were inextricable from the beginning.
Reporting on this regrettable and unproductive commotion has generally ignored its likely real meaning. It is highly doubtful Benedict intended his comments to reflect on Islam. Rather, the Pope has long anticipated a meeting in Istanbul, scheduled for later this year, with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomaeus I. It is very possible that Benedict intended his reference to a Byzantine aristocrat and the general defense in his lecture of the Greek legacy or Hellenism - a term with different meanings for different faiths - as a conciliatory gesture to his Istanbul counterpart. This might explain why Benedict brought up a Byzantine figure who offered his opinion at a time when the schism between Constantinople and Rome had already existed for some 350 years, since 1054. (It would be enlightening to compare the views of Manuel II Paleologus toward Islam with his feelings about Catholics, who had sacked Byzantium in 1203, two hundred years before his remark on holy war. One might also usefully examine the attitudes of Byzantine rulers toward the Jews, who held a lower status under the Greeks than under the Muslims.)
The Papal visit to Istanbul had finally been set after much obstruction by the government of the Turkish Republic. The secularist Turks, far from expressing Islamic resentment of Benedict, were uncomfortable with a meeting at which Benedict would be recognized as head of the Vatican state, i.e. a theocratic entity. The Turks found a way for the meeting to go forwards; but can the Turks now be reproached if they call for the Catholic-Orthodox encounter on Turkish territory to be put off? At this point, there will be a significant risk of popular agitation by Islamist extremists, which is exactly what the Turkish government fears most. But it is more unfortunate to imagine that the Pope and the Ecumenical Patriarch would attempt to find common ground in the denigration of Muslims.
Much more could be said about this contretemps. The Christian church certainly outdid the Muslims, through history, in conversions by the sword, and were it not for a probable desire to improve relations with the Orthodox Christians, it is more than a bit surrealistic for the Pope to bring the topic up. I am perhaps one in 10 million Americans who knows who the Polabians, Livonians, and Ingrians were - pagan tribes reduced to a few survivors in the forcible Christianization of northern Europe. Everybody recalls the fate of the pagan inhabitants of the New World, the Pacific islands, and various other localities where the sword of Christianity penetrated. Demagogues expend considerable effort today in condemning Muslim rulers for allegedly treating the Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, Hindus, and other believers they ruled over as "second class subjects" by requiring them to pay a tax. But one wonders how the Spanish conquistadores or the settlers of Massachusetts would have responded to the suggestion that the indigenous peoples of the New World be taxed, rather than converted or driven off their land. At least the Hindus survived, in quite large numbers, when compared with, say, the Aztecs. Still, none of these issues, whether obvious or hidden in the broader media, are necessarily relevant to preventing the clash of civilizations - or even, in the short term, discouraging some Muslim radicals from using Benedict's lecture as a pretext to foster their own denial of tolerance.
The central question is much simpler: how should a Christian leader address Muslims or comment on Islam?
No traditional, mainstream, or conservative Muslim expects the Pope or any other non-Muslim religious figure to give up a defense of the distinctive revelation that defines a particular faith community. Were the Pope to suddenly announce that there is no difference between Christianity and Islam (applying a kumbaya interfaith vocabulary), there would cease to be much justification for occupation of the Papal throne, or for the Vatican or the Catholic communion to exist at all. The head of the Roman Catholic church is duty bound to preach his faith, support its principles, and protect its adherents, in an articulate and aggressive manner, and, if need be, to defend the church by force. No sane Muslim expects anything different. Qur'an teaches, in addition to a repudiation of compulsion in religion, "I do not worship what you worship, nor do you worship what I worship. I shall never worship what you worship, nor will you ever worship what I worship. You have your own religion, and I have mine" (Surah 109).
Devotion to Christianity (or Judaism) requires drawing a firm line between these and the other faiths; the same certainly applies to Islam. But establishing a barrier against dilution of one's own religious commitment is not the same as needlessly picking an argument, in a period of extreme tensions and grave consequences, with those inspired by another. This is a lesson one had thought the Vatican had learned in its relations with the Jews. And perhaps it has; at this point I remain inclined to give Benedict the benefit of the doubt, and to remind my fellow-Muslims of another verse of Qur'an: "Be courteous when you argue with the People of the Book... Say: 'We believe in that which is revealed to us and which was revealed to you. Our God and Your God is one.'" (surah 29:46).
The horrors of new crusades and the further use of jihad as an excuse for mass murder can and must be prevented. In particular, a democratizing American power cannot base its intervention in the Muslim world on hatred of Islam. The solution resides in the values of the universitas Benedict praised in his Bavarian lecture. These are embodied in careful, intelligent discourse, firm in belief, but wary of improvisation and haste, both in argument and in response to argument.