Saturday, September 16, 2006

What did the pope say about Islam?

I've read the speech Pope Benedict XVI made at the University of Regensburg (in a provisional translation posted by the Vatican at its own site) and I'm not quite sure what he was saying about Islam or why he referred to Islam at all.

I have two theories. The first is that he does have a critique of Islam in the back of his mind and that this concern spilled out into this speech, which is really about another subject. The second is that the pope, who as Joseph Ratzinger was a well-known academic theologian as far back as the 1950s, was tempted by nifty quotation and used it as a springboard into his main subject, which use has resulted in a furore that hardly would have been raised by his speech otherwise.

The quotation is from a work presumably written by the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus (a portrait of his son Constantine XI stands in for him above). The pope refers to a recent edition by Adel Theodore Khoury (who has written a pile of books on such subjects as "Tolerance and Islam") of a dialogue that supposedly took place between the Christian emperor and a Persian. They supposedly discussed (maybe the dialogue is a fiction) the relationship between Islamic and Christian teachings. During the exchange, Manuel, who spent much of his life fighting the Ottoman Turks, says (here's the controversial passage):

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.

It isn't a big stretch to see this as an insult to the Prophet of Islam, and thus the protests. But I'm not quite sure why it is in the speech at all.

The subject of the speech was the essential relationship between reason and faith, something Ratzinger/Benedict has been thinking about since 1959, and an intellectual and theological position that Catholic thinkers in large numbers have supported since at least the 12th century (the pope would say, much longer). If you are interested in this fascinating subject, you really should read his speech.

But why on earth quote Manuel II's inflammatory characterization of the Prophet? Learned the emperor may have been, but I've never seen him in any list of theological heavyweights. It seems that he's here because in the dialogue he (according to the pope's summary)
"addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general...explain[ing] in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul."

The pope thinks that the dialogue demonstrates an essential difference between Christian (or at least Catholic) and Islamic conceptions of God. Says the pope, Manuel's "decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God's nature... not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God's nature." As "the editor, Theodore Khoury, observes: For the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-evident. But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality. Here Khoury quotes a work of the noted French Islamist R. Arnaldez, who points out that Ibn Hazn went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God's will, we would even have to practise idolatry."

Then the pope goes on to talk about whether belief in the reasonableness of God and the religious practices God prescribes is "merely a Greek idea, or is it always and intrinsically true?" The rest of the speech is on this subject and the place of reason in theology, and theology in the intellectual life of our day.

I rather get the impression that Pope Benedict XVI has given us a quick summary of what he sees as deficient in the belief and practice of Islam. Maybe we're going to hear more on this subject. A theological debate on the reasonableness of God and Islam will intensely interest a fair number of people, but I guess most people won't really get into it.

We still don't have an answer to the question, why did the pope quote that one passage from Manuel's dialogue that slams the Prophet and everything 'new' that he 'brought'? I'm sure that Benedict XVI has a lot of disagreements with the Prophet's teachings; and what Muslim could think otherwise? But doesn't he know that insults directed to the Prophet close down the possibility of discussion?

The pope by necessity is a politician and maybe he's got some deep reason for floating this sentiment lifted from Manuel II. Maybe Manuel can say for him what he'd rather not say directly.

Or maybe he just was taken by the quote, and in tried and true academic fashion, just had to throw it in.

In HIST 1505 -- History of the Modern World -- Mark Crane and I are working with a writing book called They Say/I Say: The moves that matter in academic writing. The authors of this fine book urge students to think of themselves as part of a continuing conversation, and to construct their papers by reacting to someone else's work or position -- agreeing with it, partially agreeing with it, or disagreeing with it. Outline what "they say" and then tell the reader what you say.

As far as I am concerned, the pope was using precisely this (pretty standard and generally useful) methodology. And here we see the limitations of that methodology.

When you pick your starting point, you may want to think long and hard about whether your choice of what "they say" carries more baggage than it appears at first glance.

Update: In an earlier update I said: "Adel Theodore Khoury, the author of works on tolerance in Islam, seems to be a different person from Theodore Khoury, the editor of the dialogue of Manuel II Paleologus, and the edition seems to date from 1966." Thanks to a correspondent, I now know that Adel Theodore Khoury and Theodore Khoury are the same person. There is an interview with him (in German) here. Thanks to the reader who alerted me.

Also see more on Manuel.

Further: A British journalist
argues that the pope can't be seen as a shy, naive scholar, and suggests another context.


Blogger Jerry said...

Steve, You make some very good points. The Pope's comments appear to initially be directed at Islam in some way that is left woefully incomplete, before heading off into a discussion of WESTERN rationality and faith.

My understanding, and I may be wrong here, is that he actually fails to include the Persian scholars position that Manuel II has completely misinterpreted the Quran and Muhammed. That response is apparently in Khoury's translation...and it would be interesting to see what that commentary was.

Second, the Pope seems to be unaware of the fact that there was a major effort in Islamic theology to integrate Greek philosophy into the interpretation of the Quran during the Islamic Medieval period. This tradition of ijti'had (reason) is drawn from the Islamic framework that, much like the Papal position that faith IS rational, that Allah is imminent in nature and belief can be arrived at through reason. In fact, many of the verses that relate to acts of violence against warring pagans in the Quran are imbedded within verses about showing mercy to those who make treaties, surrender, etc...and that they are NOT to be forcibly converted. Conversion is not compulsory, it is to emerge through teaching and understanding.

Such a movement led to the survival of, and commentaries on the works of Plato, Aristotle and other Greek philosophers by Ibn Rushd (Aerroes) and Ibn Sina (Avicenna) amongst others. It would be interesting to see if the critique of Manuel II by his Persian compatrot was based upon just such thought. And it's fascinating as well that Manuel II is believed to have authored the work is apparently a self-critique of his own (earlier) ignorance and bigotry. But at the time of these writings Islam was undergoing a phase of Islamic orthodoxy as well...that purged from interpretation the use of non-Islamic sources. Many traditions of Islam today are based upon this fundamentalist approach to Islam.

3:46 PM  

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