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Tuesday, September 19, 2006




The Pope and the Muslims

Many sites and articles, discussing the last controversy stirred by the Pope Benedict XVI, don't provide a link to the Pope's actual lecture. Here it is for those interested, LECTURE OF THE HOLY FATHER

The Pope responded to the fierce criticism he provoked by claiming that he was just quoting a Byzantine emperor and in no way the quote represents the Pope's personal views. And here is the peace that started the whole mess:

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 reactions coming from the enraged Muslim world were familiar and predictable. Some were threatening in the sense that unless the Pope and/or the West apologize and acknowledge the inherently peaceful and tolerant nature of Islam they should brace themselves for another round of suicide bombings and 9/11 style attacks. Other Muslims have been so disappointed by the Pope's failure to make a positive contribution to the peaceful and constructive dialog between the civilizations that they publicly designated his person as a primary target of the next attack. Across the Middle East and elsewhere dozens of churches were attacked and in Somalia an elder nun of 70 years was shot in the back.

Regardless of what the Pope was thinking when preparing the text of his lecture, he should have certainly got the idea by now that , unless he wants to see more churches burning and more of his followers fleeing the Middle East for their lives, he should start watching his mouth better and to come to terms with the idea that Islam is a peaceful religion, tolerant of other faiths.

In the meantime it may be interesting to check what actually the Pope is thinking about Islam and Muslims, since in the present intellectual environment paralyzed by the politically correct its not often when public figures and even just ordinary people would say what they really think. Here is that part of the lecture that stirred the controversy:

In the seventh conversation (controversy) edited by Professor Khoury, the emperor touches on the theme of the holy war. The emperor must have known that surah 2, 256 reads: "There is no compulsion in religion". According to the experts, this is one of the suras of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under threat. But naturally the emperor also knew the instructions, developed later and recorded in the Qur'an, concerning holy war. Without descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the "Book" and the "infidels", he addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness, a brusqueness which leaves us astounded, on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying: "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 emperor, after having expressed himself so forcefully, goes on to explain 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. "God", he says, "is not pleased by blood - and not acting reasonably (σὺν λόγω) is contrary to God's nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats... To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death...".

The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God's nature. 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 Hazm 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 practice idolatry.

The point the Pope is making is not so much about Jihad/ Crusades and whatever. What the Pope is basically saying is that Christians (say Roman Catholics) take it for granted that God is bound by the same spirit of the ten commandments he commanded the mankind and finds pools of blood an unpleasant sight. Given that reason is a part of the God's divine nature, its not reasonable to think that God would be unreasonable to the point of commanding people to do something that stands in contradiction to the spirit of love embodied by the ten commandments.

Now the Pope says that this line of argumentation is totally lost on Muslims since Islam views God as so transcendental that he transcends both love and reason, his ways are transcendental and unpredictable (unlike the reactions of Muslims themselves) and he is bound by nothing including his own word. In this sense the elegantly constructed argument of the emperor against the ungodly nature of holy wars means little for Muslims since they don't see God as limited by human notions of rationality and they are not waiting from their God for that much of consistency in his transcendental ways.

I have no idea if the Islamic theology indeed views God this way, but practically the bells were ringing all the way when i was reading the text. It was my impression since long time ago that there is a kind of passive obedience in the way the Muslims i see around react to life and its challenges, and even when they apparently take an initiative, and even a very extreme initiative like when they go on jihad or suicide bombings, it still looks more as a sort of extreme devotion bordering on surrendering oneself totally to an external force, which means making a full circle and coming back to the total state of passive obedience. If the Pope is right about God's transcendence in the Islamic theology, then this is very understandable since dealing with God that's beyond ethics and rationality leaves you with little else you can do about the situation rather than practicing an extreme form of surrendering to God's will.

The point that the Pope is making in his lecture makes Jihad/Crusades pale in comparison since he is digging under the very foundations of the Muslim faith. Either the Muslims missed the point completely or they preferred to ignore it. It could be interesting to hear top Muslim clerics responding to the Pope's claim that in Islam God is transcendental to the point of Satanism by explaining Islam's view of the matter in theological terms. But instead on the very first day of the scandal the world of Islam immediately fell back into its habitual ways of transcending all common sense and rationality.

Unfortunately there is also another part that the Muslims missed in the Pope's oration. Unfortunately because it was probably the one they should have studied most assiduously and may have even found interesting to the point of intriguing. Just above the two paragraphs i have been quoting, the Pope is talking about his old memories of the University of Regensburg where he was gaving the lecture:

This profound sense of coherence within the universe of reason was not troubled, even when it was once reported that a colleague had said there was something odd about our university: it had two faculties devoted to something that did not exist: God. That even in the face of such radical skepticism it is still necessary and reasonable to raise the question of God through the use of reason, and to do so in the context of the tradition of the Christian faith: this, within the university as a whole, was accepted without question.

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