By Dr. Radwan al Sayyid, Asharq Al-Awsat, October 5, 2006

… It’s clear from the detailed review of Pope Benedict XVI’s lecture and its context that it has nothing to do with Islam, as seemed to me at first glance, and that it centers around the restoration of Europe to Christianity, and of Christianity to Europe. Regardless of its validity, the possibility of its implementation and the methods for acknowledging it, the same project has many close ties to Islam. It may seem that these relationships are not direct, yet the truth is very different. In order to not subject what I seek to highlight about the close relationship between the Pope’s lecture and Islam to different interpretations, I will begin by translating the introductory paragraph, which mentions Islam in the lecture. The Pope said:

“I read the edition by Professor Theodore Khoury (University of Münster) of part of the dialogue carried on – perhaps in 1391 in the winter barracks near Ankara – by the erudite emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian in the subject of Christianity and Islam, an the truth of both. It was presumably the emperor himself who set down this dialogue, during the siege of Constantinople between 1394 and 1402; and this would explain why his arguments are given in greater detail than those of his Persian interlocutor. The dialogue ranges widely over the structures of faith contained in the bible and in the Quran, and deals especially with image of God and of man, while necessarily returning repeatedly to the relationship between – as they were called the three ‘Laws’ or ‘rules of life’: the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Quran. 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 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’ (al-Baqara / the Cow). 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 Quran, concerning holy war. 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 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.’ The emperor, after having expressed himself so forcefully, 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,’ he says, ‘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 Hazm 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.”

I refer to this long quotation in order to make clear the context in which the Pope deals with Islam and the Prophet Mohamed (PBUH). Having said that, he immediately shifts the attention to Faith and Reason, and how the reconciliation between Christianity and modernity was achieved in Europe.

I believe there are four matters worthy of consideration and debate:

• The context and conditions in which the alleged discourse between the Byzantine Emperor and the Persian scholar took place.

• The topics included in the dialogue or debate.

• Theodore Khoury and the Pope’s understanding of the debated issues, and the repercussions of their understanding.

• Finally, the significance of the Pope’s citation under these particular circumstances.

In terms of the context and circumstances in which this debate or dialogue took place between the emperor and the Persian Muslim scholar, the matter is clear. After the acquisition of Anatolia in the early 14th Century, the Ottomans began to successively take over Byzantine territories until they acquired all of Minor Asia and some countries in Eastern Europe, the Balkans, the Italian islands – and everything else except for Constantinople which could not be captured despite being repeatedly besieged. Manuel II, (whose epithet Paleologus means “book scholar”), wasn’t a famous statesman but he was educated in the Greek and Church cultures, and was familiar with Islam. During Sultan Beyezid I’s second long siege of Constantinople and Ankara (1391-1402 A.D.), the emperor had the opportunity to meet with a lot of Muslims who were messengers of the Sultan, as well as prisoners and mediators. Therefore, the possibility of the aforementioned debate taking place between him and a Persian Muslim scholar is valid. However, the notion that Islam spread by means of the sword is not a new Byzantine accusation against Islam. It started in the eighth and ninth centuries and includes four major claims: Islam is a religion that relies on using force to spread its faith; Islam is a religion that is steeped in sensual pleasures, Islam has a tendency towards the ‘obligatory’, and Islam has stolen the Christian faith, deforming and overturning it. It was within the emperor’s capacity, if he wanted to be fair, to let it be known beforehand that his struggle against the Ottomans and the conflict between the Arabs and Byzantines had never really been about spreading religion, but rather about political and military interests with the intention of achieving control and conquests. He undoubtedly knew that this wasn’t derived from Quran, but actually from the faulty application of its practices. Even during the Crusades, the majority of the population in the Levant and Egypt were still Christian, Orthodox, or Syriac despite being under Islamic control for over six centuries. The same applies to Minor Asia’s population during the emperor’s era where the majority were still mainly Christians. In reality, he wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference between military conquests and the spreading of Islam when he was under siege listening to the proclamations of jihad. Upon his release, he continued to encourage the struggle against Muslims in his debates because Timur Lenk had attacked the Ottomans on his way back from the Levant, and from Central Asia. Matters concluded with the defeat of Sultan Bayezid and his capture by Timur Lenk, which lead to the Byzantine Empire’s expansion that lasted for 50 years until the fall of Constantinople at the hands of the Ottomans in 1453.

Nevertheless, the greatest danger in Manuel II’s debates against Islam was were his correlations between violence in the name of religion, and violence and “the image of God” in Islam. To Manuel II, violence is against reason, and God represents reason or Logos according to the Platonic concept that he, along with Adel Khoury and the Pope, consider the essence of the Christian religion. In fact, there are three errors or flaws in this matter: using violence to spread religion was a familiar concept in the Byzantine religious heritage (towards the Bulgarian, Slavic and other Mediterranean people). The second flaw is that war does not figure into the Islamic image of God (may He be exalted). The final flaw is related to Pope Benedict; when one refers to excerpts, it is either to affirm or refute them. Since he doesn’t refute theses citations at the end of the debate could mean that Pope Benedict regards Islamic discourse as a violent one that doesn’t fit into his speech about the reconciliation between the Christian religion and modernity in Europe, and the image of God vs. violent jihad.

The emperor’s inability to understand the matter when he was besieged by Muslim armies at the beginning of the 15th Century is not much better than Professor Khoury and Pope Benedict’s understanding in early 21st Century. Three topics are worth raising in this context: the image of God in Islam, the meaning of the concept of jihad in the past and the present, and the image of jihad and Islam in the contemporary global climate. These three topics are where Khoury and the Pope missed the point. The Divine Being who is graceful, transcendent and infallible in the Islamic al-kalam theology refers to absolutism, not irrationality. This is a well-known fact not only in al-kalam theology but also in Jewish and Christian doctrines, with all their different currents and trends. Both the Platonic and Aristotelian heritage was used among Christian theologians to affirm the concept of transcendence as a result of the Old Testament’s concrete image of a violent God, and because of the Divine embodiment of the Christian God. Professor Khoury and the Pope are two senior scholars in Christian and Jewish theology; the former has been teaching Islamic studies for 40 years and has written scores of books on the image of Islam, both old and new. It is therefore surprising that he would use a quote from Ibn Hazm, which is delivered by Arnaldez to demonstrate “The strangeness” of the Islamic notion of God’s infallibility when such a concept is unknown to Orthodox Christians, especially Catholics! A senior interpreter of the Quran, how could he not understand the relationship between the Quranic verses: “He (God) is not to be questioned about what He does, but they (humans) are to be questioned”, and the verse “He had deemed Himself the compassionate”?! Also, how is it possible to link violent “jihad” to the image of God, which is a purely “Platonic” concept to Mutazalites in particular, “a Being without attributes”, and whom Professor Khoury is so fond of? Seeing as it revolves around the Quran, where is the issue of jihad ever mentioned as gratuitous and not to counteract aggression? Also, where does it say that jihad is used to spread the Islamic religion or impose its embrace on the helpless? According to Theodore Khoury, the Pope justifies the emperor’s indictment of Muslims because they spread religion through violence, despite of the Quranic verse that contradicts this claim, saying that the verse was revealed during the days when the Prophet (PBUH) was weak and that Islam later evolved to change this order, as is recorded in the Quran. (Doesn’t the established Professor Khoury, interpreter of the Quran, know that the verse that denounces coercion is mentioned in the chapter of al-Baqara (The Cow), a sura that is of the later-revealed ones (625 A.D.) – revealed precisely at the moment when the Prophet (PBUH) witnessed his most triumphant days in Medina?!) Where, then, are the late verses that claim the spread of Islam by sword? I understand that Manuel II considered his debates as a form of defending himself and his empire against Muslim attacks that weren’t undertaken in the name of religion – but what I don’t understand are the justifications put forth by the two theologians, Khoury and Benedict, in the 21st Century!

Let’s mention the circumstances and implications: Since the early 1990s, the “Clash of Civilizations” thesis has produced a charged outcome. According to Samuel Huntington and others: Islam has a number of bloody borders or frontiers. After September 11th, 2001, Islam became a global problem on the pretext that it has a strong worldwide fundamentalist current that advocates violence “in the name of jihad”. More recently, President George W. Bush repeatedly used the term, “Islamic fascism” instead of “Islamic jihad”. Professor Khoury had embarked on rectifying the perception of Islam in Europe and the West over the past four decades, but more specifically, within the Catholic Church. Late Pope John Paul II was renowned for his knowledge in this matter. When he condemned America’s wars in Iraq, Palestine and Afghanistan, he insisted on debating with Muslims, believing that the nature of relations between Christians and Muslims would be what decides the fate of the world. However, it seems that the current Pope does not share that same level of awareness. That is not to say that he is hostile to Islam, but because he adopts a limited view that aims at restoring Europe and fortifying it with Christian faith. Pope Benedict makes Judaism neutral by including it in the Greek and Christian heritage, he then shifts his attention to winning over the Protestants and secularists into his alienated or introverted outlook. But Christianity is a major and widespread global religion, the number of Christians, even Catholics, is larger outside of Europe than inside it – as is widely known. Thus his isolating ideology will only add to the Catholic Christians’ problems, both inside and outside of Europe. The Vatican’s regressive project is grandly represented in what is the Pope’s attempt to change the name of the “Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue” to the “Council for Cultural Dialogue”. This is considered a regression after the “Second Vatican Council” (1962-1965), which not only recognized the Abrahamic religions, but also had a partnership with them, as well as an introductory dialogue with other religions. The famous magazine, Islamo-Christiana, is no longer published by the Vatican. All of these events do not seem promising, nor do they point towards a future of hopefulness, openness or dialogue. The problem is not in the Pope’s negative vision of Islam but in the regression, isolation, the apprehension of the other, and in incorporating this grand global religion into an illusory project – that of Christian Europe. As opposed to what Pope John Paul II tried to do, which was to establish a new world based on values of freedom, justice and peace to fight poverty, hunger, social inequality and the breakdown of family structure.

* * * *

Perhaps the Pope’s presentation of his lecture in this sequence may have been unintentional – it is ostensibly unrelated to Islam and does not debate for, or against it. However, his introduction to the lecture in this manner cannot be a coincidence. Also, the global attitude towards Arabs, Muslims and the vision of Islam is an alarming one that stirs fear and worry. The frenzy and the riots against Salman Rushdie, the Danish cartoons, or Taslima Nasreen etc., does not do us good. But the issue is not about these scenes or a speech against Islam only, it is also about the “conquests” of September 11th in New York and Washington, in addition to the attacks in Bali, Madrid, London, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Palestine, Darfur, Somalia and Damascus – and I cannot even begin to recall where else. As I said earlier, the world believes we are major problem; a problem that cannot be solved using insults and televised responses, nor can it be resolved with further acts of violence and counter-violence. We constitute one fifth of the world’s population, and inasmuch as we have rights we also have responsibilities. We do not take our rights, but we do not assume our responsibilities either. We don’t want to be afraid of the world just as we don’t want to scare them. And inasmuch as there is no patience reserved for the endless devastation in Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon, and various other places – there is also no patience for this increasing isolation from the world and its policies, the world and its cultures, and the world and its religions.

God will forever be in control.

[Dr. Radwan Al-Sayyid is a prominent Lebanese intellectual and a professor of Islamic studies at the Lebanese University. For the entire article that his excerpt is from, click here.]