As you’ve no doubt heard, the Muslim world has its knickers in a twist once again, this time over some remarks made by the Pope during the recent “Apostolic Journey of His Holiness Benedict XVI to München, Altötting, and Regensburg”. It’s been making the rounds that the Pontiff suggested that Mohammed, in the later verses of the Qur’an, had wrongly advocated the use of violence in the defense and propagation of Islam. To imply that peace-loving Muslims are prone to violence is, of course, so preposterous that Muslims the world over, in protest of this baseless and blasphemous insult, and in defense of their faith, are erupting in violence once again.
The Pope, of course, regrets the effect of his splendidly timed lecture, and would like to reassure the Ummah that he meant no offense. After all, the controversial comments were not the Pope’s own words, but were uttered, rather, by the 14th-century Byzantine emperor Manuel II Palaeologus during the course of a chat with an “educated Persian”. Here’s the bit that has the faithful in an uproar, from the Pontiff’s lecture on the relationship of faith and reason. Benedict refers to the conversation between Manuel and his guest:
The dialogue ranges widely over the structures of faith contained in the Bible and in the Qur’an, and deals especially with the image of God and of man, while necessarily returning repeatedly to the relationship of the “three Laws”: the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Qur’an. In this lecture I would like to discuss only one point – itself rather marginal to the dialogue itself – which, in the context of the issue of “faith and reason”, I found interesting and which can serve as the starting-point for my reflections on this issue.
In the seventh conversation-controversy, edited by Professor Khoury, the emperor touches on the theme of the jihad (holy war). The emperor must have known that surah 2, 256 reads: “There is no compulsion in religion”. It 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 decending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the “Book” and the “infidels”, he turns to his interlocutor somewhat brusquely with the central question on the relationship between religion and violence in general, in these words: “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 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 is not pleased by blood, and not acting reasonably 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 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.
So, what do we have here? The Holy Father begins by quoting the statement, from the earlier, “Meccan” verses of the Qur’an, that “there is no compulsion in religion”, but immediately points out that this mild-mannered remark was made by Mohammed at a time when he was “powerless and under threat”. The implication, obviously, is that the Prophet, feeling vulnerable, was afraid to lay his cards on the table, but felt more comfortable about revealing his true intentions after he had consolidated his political power, which is when the “Medinan” surahs, in which the exhortation to jihad is found, were added.
Emperor Manuel argues that Mohammed’s endorsement of spreading faith by the sword is entirely wrong, and that we should bring others to God by reason, not force, which goes nicely with the points Benedict is trying to make. But although the Pope’s primary target in these remarks is the West (and as he says, the six-hundred-year-old conversation is just the “starting point” for his reflections) at no time does he distance himself in any way from Manuel’s characterization of Mohammed’s teaching as “evil and inhuman”, and he seems quite clearly to give tacit approval to the idea that these ideas, taken straight from the Qur’an, are a great example of what not to do. (He’s entirely right about that, of course, but that’s beside the point here.)
Given what was actually said, I think it’s pretty disingenuous for the Vatican to pretend that the speech was just taken the wrong way, and unless the Pope was deliberately trying to be provocative (and he has repeatedly insisted that he wasn’t), it is astonishing that he would be so utterly gormless as to make such remarks in public. Of course, he has every right to say whatever he likes, and I most certainly am NOT arguing that another predictable and tiresome round of violent reprisals by fascist Islamic thugs already sworn to the destruction of our civilization is in any measure justified. But it is startling, given that the entire world is such a tinderbox these days, that he could be so stupefyingly oblivious to the effect his words would surely have.
Furthermore, it seems the Vatican is engaging in some Orwellian post-facto spin control. The transcript I pasted in above comes from the Italian website Chiesa; there is also, however, an “official” transcript available from the Vatican. I noticed an interesting difference. Here’s the Chiesa version:
Without decending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the “Book” and the “infidels”, he turns to his interlocutor somewhat brusquely with the central question on the relationship between religion and violence in general, in these words: “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”.
Here’s the Church’s transcript of the same section:
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”.
Note the extra bit in boldface (it’s in boldface on the Vatican’s website as well). I consider it exceedingly unlikely that it was simply left out for some reason in the Chiesa transcription; obviously it was put in after the fact – a boldfaced (and rather clumsy) attempt to make the historical record a little less inflammatory than what the Pope actually said.
I wonder which version they’ll be quoting in six hundred years.