The Pope and Islam

By Legal Eagle

I have discovered this interesting blog by one Damaskinos (or should I say, it discovered me – the blogosphere really is an amazing place). It has some pertinent and learned comments on the latest furore involving the Pope’s speech. As Damaskinos notes, if you check the actual text of the speech, you will see that the “controversial” portion was taken totally out of context. As he further comments, the speech is not about Islam at all, but about the relationship between reason and faith, and the Hellenistic aspects of Christianity. The Pope refers glancingly to Manuel II Paleologus’ discussion with an unnamed Islamic scholar that forced conversion or conversion through violence must be against the will of God because it is against reason. To the Byzantine Christian Paleologus, this seemed self-evident, but to some radical strands of Islam at that time, it was not.

I am not a Catholic, but it seems to me that many people need to exercise more reason when it comes to this speech! If one wants to find out what Benedict XVI thinks about Islam and extremism, His Holiness gave an address to Muslim representatives in Cologne last year for the 20th World Youth Day.

One of the most intelligent Islamic responses I have read is by Waleed Aly of the Islamic Council of Victoria. Aly argues that the Pope’s speech was imprudent but certainly not designed to be offensive.

Like Aly, I wonder what the Islamic scholar’s response to Paleologus’ comment would be? I, too, am sure that the Islamic scholar did not threaten to kill Paleologus. The translation used by the Pope was in French, by Adel Theodore Khoury. I have tried to find an English translation of the dialogue between Paleologus and the Islamic scholar to find out what the scholar’s response was, but there does not seem to be one.

The best I can do is a translation of a German interview with Khoury through the website

The quotation applies only to a minority of Muslims

An edition of Byzantine sources in French, which appeared in 1966, is the cause of rage all around the world. An interview with emeritus theologian Adel-Theodore Khoury, whose book the Pope cited in his controversial Regensburg lecture.

Professor Khoury, what kind of day did you have yesterday?

The media called all day. Television was here. I’ve never experienced anything like this before.

Did you ever expect that your book would cause such an uproar?

An edition of Byzantine sources in French that appeared in 1966? Please.

Can you tell us something about the context of the quotation?

The Emperor and the Persion scholar met in a Muslim military camp outside Constantinople. There in an open atmosphere and highly polemically, they discussed each other’s religion. Both sides presented critical formulations to the other side, neither spared the other. The Pope did not use this quotation, however, to say something about Islam. That was not his theme at all. He used it only as a bridge to his next thoughts. The crucial sentence appears somewhat later: not to act reasonably is against God’s nature. He was concerned about the question of God’s will. That is moreover also a significant topic of discussion in Islamic theology.

You are a scholar of Islam. Do you believe that this quotation correctly characterized Islam?

Once again: that was not what the Pope was talking about in this lecture. Otherwise, one would have to add a few more remarks, because the quotation does not present the thought of the Koran precisely. It is not about conversion by the sword, but rather about the conquest and rule by the sword with simultaneous religious tolerance, at least for religions of the Book. If the Pope had been concerned about Islam, he would have had to point out entirely different streams of thought, which also demonstrate the reasonableness of God’s actions. Furthermore, you can find passages in the Koran where conversion by argument and just action is valued.

How do you explain the great rage in the Muslim world?

I see it in the context of the great tensions of the present day. Every one is so sensitive that misunderstandings arise. Many wanted from the Pope some words of differentiation, a categorization, an: “I, Benedict XVI, do not see Islam in this way.”

Would you have advised the Pope to make such a comment?

I might have. He could have clarified that he was referring only to a radical minority of Muslim, the Islamists prepared for violence. That is how the Turkish Hurriyet [Islamic scholar] understood it, and I believe, correctly: Emperor Manuel’s statement only applies to a minority of Muslims today.

[emphasis and explanation in italics added]

So Khoury says that the Islamic scholar with whom Paleologus was speaking understood that Paleologus was only criticizing a radical minority of Muslims for acting violently and unreasonably. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. I still want to work out a translation of the original dialogue, though. It’s my empiricist, rational mind!

In any case, this has been an interesting experience. I have discovered various Catholic, Muslim and Orthodox Christian websites, as well as various medieval text sources to try to find out more about the historical background. Before this, I certainly did not realise that the Vatican put texts online or that the Pope has an online fan club.

This whole business reminds me of a fight I had with my Dad once when I was a teenager. It all started when Dad made a cross-sounding comment about something I had done. “You’re angry,” I observed.

“I’m not angry!” Dad shouted in response. Of course, being a smart aleck kid, I couldn’t resist pointing out that he had just proved my point…you can guess that the fight just escalated from there. I hope that this particular argument doesn’t follow suit, and reason prevails. I’m sure a prayer or two for calm wouldn’t hurt either!

One Comment

  1. ky
    Posted September 22, 2006 at 10:29 pm | Permalink

    The latest is that a group of Pakistani clerics have asked the pope to resign. Oh what fun.

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