Pope Benedict XVI has created a firestorm of controversy over remarks he made at the University of Regensberg. The Pope quoted the obscure Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus who said of Islam “Show me just what Muhammed 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.”
Benedict did not condone that statement, but nor is it entirely without merit. His speech is complex and challenging, but it is also a critical statement of why the doctrine of jihad is such an affront to human dignity. The Pope stated:
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 (“syn logo”) 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 practice idolatry.
The Pope isn’t endorsing the words of that Byzantine Emperor, but making a larger point about the existence of universal truths. However, what has happened is that the radical fringe of Islam (or perhaps the mainstream of Islam) simply cannot accept rational or reasonable criticism. The flap over the Muhammad cartoons, the way in which the crudest of propaganda is swallowed whole, and now this all show that there are significant swathes — perhaps even a majority — of the Muslim world that is unable to consider their faith in a rational way.
As one very astute analyst finds, the Pope was speaking of how reason and revelation are two things which should be closely associated together — that his criticism of the Reformation is that reason and revelation were split, and that in Islam, reason is almost entirely subjugated to the revelations of the Qu’ran and the dictates of the Prophets. Indeed, the actions of the Muslim world to that line of analysis proves the Pope’s point quite well.
The Guardian also has an excellent defense of Pope Benedict:
Benedict’s offence, of course, was recklessly to quote this 600 year-old expression of the point of view of a medieval Middle Eastern potentate. He didn’t endorse it, didn’t say that it was his own view, attributed it in context. And is now told that he has “aroused the anger of the whole Islamic world”. Most of which, probably, had never heard of Manuel II Paleologue before this morning. Perhaps the pope should be careful of bringing such subversive ancient texts to light.
On the other hand, if you cannot, as part of a lengthy and profound academic lecture, cite a 600 year-old text for fear of stirring the aggravation of noisy politicians half way around the world, what CAN you do? We might as well all retreat into obscurantism. And keep our mouths shut, for otherwise, who knows who we might offend. And if, as a result of the outrage, some Catholics get killed or their churches burned down by offended scholars and textual exegesists it might be thought that Manuel’s original point had rather been made.
Indeed, given that there are now worries about the safety of the Pope due to his speech, I’d argue that Manuel’s original point has already been largely proven. If the Muslim world wishes to refute his statement, further violence is most assuredly not the way to do it.