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The Pope, the Emperor, Islam and Us

Fr. Stanley S. Harakas

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Once more we have another furious, murderous, and unreflecting reaction from the extremist Wahabist Muslims, in the wake of Pope Benedict XVI,s lecture at the University of Regensburg on September 12 of this year. It is a month and a week at this writing after the event. Thousands of emails, articles, and most importantly, demonstrations, Imam-incited violent and destructive acts by thoughtlessly offended religionists, including the murder by decapitation of an Orthodox Christian Priest have followed the publication of the lecture.

I think it might be time to look at the situation with a cooler head, and try to make sense of what has happened. Here is a try!

What the Pope Said

There are some in Islam who, I am sure, believe that religious faith and conversion should not be forced or the result of the threat of death. But clearly there are thousands upon thousands of extremist Wahabist Muslims who disagree, and believe that it is acceptable, and even good, to convert people by the sword.

I have before me the six and a half page translation of the Pope's lecture, titled "Faith and Reason and the University Memories and Reflections." The purpose of his short talk was to argue against the mind-set that has taken over the modern thinkers, which excludes religion from the realm of reason. Early on, Pope Benedict sets the tone with phrases like "a single rationality," "the right use of reason," "the reasonableness of faith," "reason as a whole," a "profound sense of coherence within the universe of reason," and the necessity and reasonableness of raising "the question of God through the use of reason." All these phrases are found within the first paragraph of the address.

In the second paragraph, the Pope turned to the use of "dialogue" focusing on the example of the dialogue among religions. For the Pope, it is rational to hold that violence is foreign to the nature of God and that to make people convert to any religion by threat or force or violence is therefore not rational and is a logical contradiction.

For some reason, to make his point, he uses the dialogue of "the erudite Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian on the subject of Christianity and Islam, and the truth of both." It seems that Emperor Emanuel wrote down his recollections of the dialogue sometime between 1394 and 1402. The dialogue covered a wide range of topics including the scriptures of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, as well as diverse theological topics.

The Pope then uses what seems to him to be a clear-cut example of contradictory reason on a rather peripheral issue - "holy war." He probably chose it because it seems to the Pope that the two terms are logically contradictory. To make his point about the necessity to associate reason with faith, he uses several quotations from Manuel's book about the dialogue on Christianity and Islam, including the now infamous quote that provoked the ire of extremist Wahabist Muslims.

Pope Benedict introduces the quotations with this illuminating phrase: he "goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable." Here is what the Pope quotes the Emperor as saying: "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 ..." I think most people agree and think such a position is rational and sensible.

Thus, the Pope was calling for reasoned faith and used the view that forcing people to believe is unreasonable. But this was just a brief aside, apparently for him a self-evident example of using reason in relationship to issues of faith. In the rest of his address -- comparatively much larger in scope and purpose -- the Pope addresses not Islam, but those in academia who exclude religion from rational inquiry. And as an aside, he does it by making his case extensively with the help of Greek Philosophy. His real opponents are secularists and religionists of any stripe, who divorce reason from religion. But that is another issue for another time.

What Did the Emperor Say? And Was He Right?

So what was the so-called offensive quote from Emperor Emanuel in the Pope's lecture which the Pope characterized as being said "with a startling brusqueness"? These are the Emperor's words as quoted: "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 that he preached."

How accurate was the Emperor's statement? Well, first, Emanuel agrees that Mohammed taught things that were new. But it is important to ask just what was new and what was the nature of their newness? You may think that this is an irrelevant question, but it is not. You see, when Muslims seek to convert others to their religion (by reason and not violence or threat), they make the opposite claim. They tell people, that Islam's teachings are not new, but are similar to what the potential convert already believes.

"Do you believe in God? So do we, the Muslim says" "Do you pray? So do we, the Muslim says." "Do you fast? So do we, the Muslim says." "Do you go on religious pilgrimages? So do we, the Muslim says." Do you have scriptures? So do we, the Muslim says." "Do you do works of mercy and philanthropy? So do we, the Muslim says." Even the concept of "jihad" is not new. In its spiritual (not military) form it is the equivalent of the struggle against sin and the exercise of virtue in growing toward God-likeness. Nothing really new! So it would seem that Muslims themselves disagree with the idea that Islam presents new things.

But, of course, there are relatively new things in all these areas! God is named Allah -that is new. Muslims pray five times a day facing Mecca -that is new. Muslims fast for the whole month of Ramadan during the day, but feast at night -that is new. Muslims are exhorted to make a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lives. That never existed before, so it is new. These new things are not evil or bad in themselves. The Emperor was wrong to claim that everything new in Islam is evil.

The claim, however, is that these and other similar uniquely Muslim beliefs and practices transcend the other religions, complete them, and are the perfect fulfillment of religion. Is that true? Well, not from the perspective of Christianity. From that perspective, Islam's teachings revert back to an earlier and less developed religious expression. God / Allah is no longer one God Who is a communion of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, (the Holy Trinity) but a wholly distant and transcendent being. Allah seems to demand submission (the meaning of the word "Islam") and not personal communion as is the case in Christianity. Not at all prominent in the sacred writings of Islam is the teaching of love in God, love for God, and love among believers.

Further, salvation in Islam seems to be based on earning salvation through works. That was the futile endeavor that St. Paul showed couldn't work in Judaism. In Christianity salvation is a gift of grace from a loving Father through the Incarnation, Death and Resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit. And nowhere in Islam are there sacraments through which we are born again into a new life of redemption, forgiven and sustained in our journey to holiness. All these are jettisoned in Islam. It seems to be not a fulfillment, but a reversion to a less adequate religious belief and practice -from the Christian perspective.

From a Christian point of view there is also the claim that Mohammed supplanted Christ. Here we just have a major difference of belief. Muslims never claim that Mohammed is in any way divine. He is claimed to be God's final and last Prophet. Christian views of Christ are much more exalted: He is the incarnate second person of the Holy Trinity, the Son, who took on full human nature in one divine/human person for the salvation of the world.

The Issue of Jihad

Now how about Jihad understood not only as spiritual struggle (which is shared by both Islam and Christianity) but also as violence against unbelievers to force conversions to the Muslim religion? Well, as is the case in many scriptures, there are often conflicting statements and usually, as is the case with the Old and New Testaments, the passages that come later in time trump the earlier contradictory passages as expressing the true intent of the religion is question.

Pope Benedict quotes Surah (chapter) 2, verse 256, which teaches "There is no compulsion in religion." But he points out that later passages in the Muslim scriptures make a difference about how people of "The Book" (the Old and New Testament, that is Jews and Christians) are to be treated and how the "infidels" (that is pagans) are to be treated. That is what Emperor Emmanuel was referring to when he referred to Mohammed's "command to spread by the sword the faith that he preached." The extremist Wahabist Muslims' reaction to Pope Benedict's use of the Emperor's quote, appears not to be against the accuracy of his characterization of conversion by the sword, but that the Emperor called it "evil and inhuman."

Here there is a real difference of religious belief and practice. There are some in Islam who, I am sure, believe that religious faith and conversion should not be forced or the result of the threat of death. But clearly there are thousands upon thousands of extremist Wahabist Muslims who disagree, and believe that it is acceptable, and even good, to convert people by the sword. Many commentators on the violent Muslim reactions to the Satanic Verses, 9/11, the Danish cartoons, and the Pope's lecture, mistakenly thought that the violence proved the Emperor's point. Not so. For these people, killing those who disagree with them is not evil. It is good and just and what they preach.

Some Final Reflections

Circulating on the internet is a story which may or may not be true, but makes the point. Told by a Christian Minister deeply involved in Prison Ministry, it relates how a seminar of prison chaplains included presentations by representatives of different faiths. When the Muslim Imam made his presentation, he showed an interesting video about Islam. During the discussion afterwards, the Christian clergyman asked the Muslim Imam how those who did not believe in Islam should be treated.

Without hesitation, the Imam repeated what he had been taught and what he preached: "They should be killed." The Christian clergyman asked therefore, whether the Imam thought that he should kill him because he would not become a Muslim. The Imam finally understood that his rhetoric was totally inappropriate to that setting and was embarrassed. Then, the Christian told him that Jesus Christ expects that he should forgive the Imam and should reach out in love to the Imam with a message of reconciliation. The meeting ended in uncomfortable and ashamed silence.

From a Christian point of view, though the Emperor was not totally correct in his comments, the main thrust of his position was correct. Using violence and the threat of death to convert people to one or another religion is wrong, and in the last analysis is not rational. The early Mohammed was right. It is not in accordance with God and reason that human beings should be forced into religious belief.

The Pope correctly expressed regret that his message provoked violent reactions, but only because those who called for the violent reactions completely misunderstood his intentions. The Emperor was also right, who in the Pope's last paragraph was quoted as saying, "Not to act reasonably, not to act with logos, is contrary to the nature of God."

Fr. Stanley Harakas, a retired Priest of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, taught Orthodox Christian Ethics at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, MA for 30 years. He has written monthly Guest Editorials in The Hellenic Voice for the past three years.

This article first appeared in The Hellenic Voice. Reprinted with permission of The Hellenic Voice.

Posted: 04-Nov-06

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