Papal Bull

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.


  1. PDG says

    I realize this is somewhat off topic but it is a meaningful direction to take when religion is being discussed:

    If we lose ouselves in the contemplation of the infinite greatness of the universe in space and time, meditate on the thousands of years that are past or to come, or if the heavens at night actually bring before our eyes innumerable worlds and so force upon our consciousness the immensity of the universe, we feel ourselves dwindle to nothing; as individuals, as living bodies, as transient phenomena of will, we feel ourselves pass away and vanish into nothing like drops in the ocean. But at once there rises against this ghost of our own nothing-ness, against such lying impossibility, the immediate consciousness that all these worlds exist only as our idea, only as modifications of the eternal subject of pure knowing, which we find ourselves to be as soon as we forget our individuality, and which is the necessary supporter of all worlds and all times the condition of their possibility. The vastness of the worlds which disquieted us before, rests now in us; our dependence upon it is annulled by its dependence upon us. All this, however, does not come at once into reflection, but shows itself merely as the felt consciousness that in some sense or other (which philosophy alone can explain) we are one with the world, and therefore not oppressed, but exalted by its immensity.

    – Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Idea

    Who is my favorite European philosopher – very Taoist in fact – please check him out as yr able.

    I’ve also been editing this quote into many threads I’ve yammered on of late –

    As Carl Sagan wrote in Pale Blue Dot (1994):

    A religion old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science, might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge.

    Peace unto you my brother!

    Posted September 19, 2006 at 2:47 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Hi Pat,

    My oh my. What can I add to that?


    Posted September 19, 2006 at 3:23 pm | Permalink
  3. the one eyed man says

    What can be added to that?

    Geez, I dunno, how about life being just a bowl of cherries?

    Posted September 19, 2006 at 7:16 pm | Permalink
  4. PDG says

    Nah ya got that backwords …its in the glorious DEATH of Islamic martyrdom that gets ya cherries… they may be ghostly but hey, after a whole life of being warped into whatever shape one needs to assume to kill innocent strangers just to get to those angelic virgins – who’s to say how sweet such once forbidden fruits may seem…A ghost of a chance to get some is better than none in some situations.
    Life may be suffering or not and cherries are too expensive for me these days, but I hope I AM damned if I get dragged into bloody conflicts in the name of any freaking diety or wacko religious system like Christianity or Islam or Buddhism or even my own Taoist leanings.
    The puppeteers in these conflicts of proxy could not care less about the theology envolved . They just want the wars to happen to trade their wares and keep oil prices high – (as that glorious GOP elephant’s eye can cast its greedy gaze).
    The Saudis financed the 9/11 miscreants. Why does our prez hold hands and butter up the Saudi Princes? Why does his administration try to delete the 28 pages of the 9/11 commission’s report that outlined the Saudi financing?
    These supposed fundamentalist’s religions have been co-opted into just another tool for the rich and powerful, they are the only ones who can afford the damn cherries…

    Posted September 19, 2006 at 10:49 pm | Permalink
  5. Malcolm says

    Boy, you don’t miss an opportunity, Pat… was there ever a time when international politics wasn’t a web of scheming and intrigue, and when the powerful neglected their own interests?

    Posted September 20, 2006 at 12:46 am | Permalink
  6. patrick says

    Yr right Mac-
    there was no such time! and thats why I reacted so strongly to the cherries thing, after I tried to bring some peace and light into the religion as strife doctriines I’ve been reading…My spiritual beliefs are not always related to my political beliefs – I render unto the Kaisar only what the IRS demands!
    So when I try to raise the level of religion to one that may be beyong politics its because I think it should be.
    Fundamentalists politicize their faith at any cost. I tie them together only when necessary to make a point.
    We live our lives on many levels- ( Kharma, Artha and Dharma are not a bad way to see ithe main divisions – if a bit simplistic).
    Each level has its own tactics for survival and furthering of ones aspirations.
    There should be little if any strife at the highest levels of enlightened living…
    I aint there yet.
    But to look at the level of faith as the same as that of politics – misses the whole point of spiritual striving – to raise ourselves above the Artha level of human interaction into one of metaphysical interaction, the Dharma.
    That which Sagan wrote of in a way that I relate to strongly…. And is the main reason I relate to Taoist thinking on such a deep level-it is based in a large part on regarding natural law as “gods” law- or the Tao if you will…Nature and God being one and the same.
    It is the will to CONTROL our world to suit our own base desires that we can sometimes even call our faiths… These strivings create the problems.
    Sometimes I can see this as if there really were a ‘Devil” within each of us, the dark forces of uncooperative living that makes the western man so unpredictable to the rest of the world. Just as those with their own crazy jihadist ways seem be-deviled to our way of thinking.
    Us…them -is actually always WE but seldom seen that way. This is “one world” more and more each day and the struggles to steer what direction we take as “masters” of this world bares watching.
    But nature has its own agenda. If we ignore the needs of this world to stay healthy as a biosphere there will be a price to pay. I’m not sure what level of existence such a concept relates to- maybe all of them!?
    I meant to get at the big-picture and ended up back in human folly!

    Posted September 20, 2006 at 1:11 pm | Permalink
  7. Malcolm says

    “…the dark forces of uncooperative living that makes the western man so unpredictable to the rest of the world.”

    You kidding? We cooperate like mad over here. One hand washes the other. You buy my SUVs, I use the money to buy your Big Macs. Western civilization is about as non-zero-sum as it gets.

    Posted September 20, 2006 at 1:24 pm | Permalink
  8. patrick says

    Hey bro- more is less. that zero-sum has a huge cost to the rest of the world. Some of the world sees buying SUVs and bigmacs as supporting that which is most distructive to the biosphere, that which undermines the small biz aspirations of non-mall related living… etc.
    And yes westerners have always been thought of as unpredictable to much of the world, because we have usually been all about the buying and selling. Native Americans could not grasp the will of the Europeans to own the land and rip out the resources from that land.
    Their “primitive” way of spiritual – and nomadic – living with/off the land was much the same as the “primitive” Africans, Asians and all others having been or now being absorbed into the modern world order that is mostly a western concept of “materialism as religion”. Profit as salvation does not work in some circles.
    Many jihadists are not jealous of western wealth and power – as you have claimed . Some are and some dispise it – as did the many people in cultures already absorbed by it.
    The juggernaut of capitalism has brought many benifits, but it is not zero-sum. The bills are still out-standing on much that we have morgaged the worlds’ future to obtain.
    With lots a love my brother I wish I could make these things more clear for you to get yr head around what I’m trying to express.
    That the whole system of Americanism is attractive and deadly – is much like yr better mouse traap needs to be.
    There is the bait of treats and the lure of a good life – much like a roach hotel…and the tricks of the trade where any true mobility of direction is funnelled into the making of more stuff more money more power but less time less beauty less diversity – on all levels – and less looking at life as a blessing without those things that money can buy.

    Posted September 20, 2006 at 2:58 pm | Permalink
  9. Malcolm says

    Pat, I’m just teasing you with the Big Mac / SUV stuff. I realize those products are the worst of what we do.

    To be clear: when I talk about “non-zero-sum” relationships, I am referring to the game-theory concept in which a “zero-sum” game means that all of my gains come at my opponent’s expense. That’s what poker, or war, is like (in fact war can be regarded as being “negative-sum”). A “non-zero-sum” game is just the opposite – a joint activity from which we both can benefit. Together, the group can catch an elephant (or build a hydroelectric project); when acting separately, none of us can.

    Don’t fall into the “noble savage” trap. Homicide rates in hunter-gatherer societies are typically vastly higher than in western cultures, and the usual state of most “primitive” societies is continuous warfare.

    Capitalism is a form of cooperation that emerges spontaneously when people are left to their own devices; you might say it is a consistent byproduct of freedom, the result of a natural selection of sorts that favors non-zero-sum relationships. Trading with one another simply beats fighting one another. Sure, we have fouled the nest a bit. We are the first generation to have faced the exhaustion of resources at a global scale, and we are going to have to modify our behavior to solve the problem – but careless resource-depletion has happened locally at every smaller scale throughout history. Even hunter-gatherer societies, including Native American ones, have often hunted their own food supplies into extinction.

    Posted September 20, 2006 at 3:08 pm | Permalink
  10. patrick says

    Hey Malcolm ,
    I know what ya meant and I too am trying to tease a whatthe-out of ya… I just have a more socialistic appraisal of how zero-sum works. It is the socialistic attributes that you state which make capitalism work.
    The Middle way. I seek the middle way in these deep and ever-changing matters.
    The human sacrifices of the more “civilized” central american groups the USUAL depletion of resources – these were just typical folks being folks sorts of activities we can look back and see them for what they were.
    But now we have the scientific knowledge and tools to look ahead with some accuracy and modify our behaviors with a more global perspective -if we have the will to think in global terms. The us vs. them attitudes need to be modified on all fronts.
    And there in is the rub-slings and arrows are coming and going and the folks selling arrows are happy and the folks making the slings and bows are HAPPY, that the wars go on. Those folks are MY enemy, not the poor saps suckered into the fighting.
    We can not trust our leaders nor the leaders of the jihadists to even seek peace. They do not wish it. So I will always say yeah man to those who say Peace is good at any time, even if that is not entirely the case. There are so many saying that the warfare is inevitable and NEEDED. Murtha helps keep a balanced perspective possible.
    That the Pope is stirring up some Papal Bull is certainly not a new thing! Most have been a bit more adept at the follow-up politics that goes with the bull. That this lot it shooting from the hip is not so very cool…
    But I see the fomenting of much evil doings from both Islam and Christianity, and I do not see the various Christian Churches ever adding to the secular nature of Modern Western society – save for the back-ward thinking inherent in the church driving so many people to drop it and become secular in their own minds!
    Now if such a change of heart can sweep the Islamic lands we have a new ball game. I recently read a thread that advocated dosing Islamic extremists with magic shrooms to open their 3rd eye sort of approach spike the hummus and watch the inner light come on…
    It may be that making sex and drugs and rock and roll available to the Arabian youth is the tactic to use. The mullahs claim we are corrupting them anyway so lets do the job right!
    We will open enough inner doors to change the direction of your mortal enemies’ children from becoming the problmes that we perceive their parents to be –
    hey it worked for us!-
    We only fight whenever we KNOW we’re right. Right?

    Posted September 20, 2006 at 4:19 pm | Permalink
  11. Malcolm says

    Pat, frankly I’m at a loss as to how to respond to all that.

    The world as it is leaves much to be desired, and on that we can agree.

    Posted September 20, 2006 at 4:39 pm | Permalink
  12. pdg says

    Hi there Mac-
    Hey I’d rather be amusing than right sometimes!
    I was actually trying to express my optmistic view of history. The world is changing for the better in many ways and much of it is due to the liberalizing ways of the good ol’ US of A…
    The first time I was in Italy way back in 1976 Italian women were not “allowed” out alone and visiting women were often treated to pinched butts if they traveled unescorted. That has changed. Some would say for the worse too…But such taboos needed to go – I believe.
    There is even a silver lining to China invading Tibet! The feudal and misogynistic ways of there ancient system can not survive the diaspora. The transcendence of non-attachment – with being driven from their homeland is also a strong lesson for the world to witness, if the compassion of the Dalai Lama can survive such bitter hardships than what do we worry about our seemingly trivial problems as if they were so dire a circumstance? Much that is lost is a blessing as we trundle along. Some is to be missed but I do believe that we humans are trending toward the light for the most part…
    While I think this is a very dark period for America due to our having an idiot as prez – I have to keep the faith with spirit rising and dragging mortal flesh with it!
    So the papacy is feeling its oats and stirring up some fighting words. If you walked around in a dress thats over the top enough to make Liberacci jealous you’d throw down some jive too-just to prove yr macho enough for the Spanish to stay on board…

    Posted September 20, 2006 at 9:25 pm | Permalink

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