“Argue not with the People of the Book unless it be in a better way, except with such of them as do wrong; and say: ‘We believe in that which has been revealed to us and revealed to you; our God and your God is One, and to God do we surrender’” (Qur’an 29:46)

I am a Canadian Muslim (of Pakistani background) who teaches theology at a Jesuit university in Los Angeles. As such, a number of people have asked me about my thoughts on His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI’s remarks in September about Islam, and the subsequent events that unfolded. Before I do that, I begin with a story about the importance of symbols for Christians and Muslims.

I feel incredibly blessed to be a part of the faculty at Loyola Marymount University, where I have been warmly welcomed by my colleagues in the department and across the university. On my office door, I have a number of postcards as decoration. They include a photograph of Woody Guthrie (one of my favourite songwriters of the 20th century), a painting of retired Montreal Canadiens hockey goalie Ken Dryden (I am, after all, Canadian), William Blake’s watercolour of “Satan, Sin and Death” from his illustrations for Paradise Lost (I came to theology through the study of English literature), and a version of Pastor Martin Niemoller’s famous quotation that begins “First they came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up…”. In the summer, a colleague in the department returned from a trip to London, and brought me a postcard of the famous painting of Sultan Mehmet II by Gentile Bellini that hangs in the National Gallery. I added that to the collection on my door.

In mid-September, after the Pope’s remarks, a Greek Orthodox colleague in the department took me aside, and explained that the postcard of the Turkish Sultan was offensive to him, as overt Muslim symbols seemed arrogant in a Christian institution. Never mind that the card was given to me by a Christian colleague, who himself was fully aware of the complexities of a representation by a European artist who visited the Sultan’s court in Constantinople. Never mind that the original is on loan to an exhibition entitled “Venice and the Islamic World” which is now showing in Paris and next year will travel to New York. Never mind that I am the only full-time non-Christian member of a department with 17 colleagues. Never mind that the colleague who was offended mentioned to me last year that he thought Allah was a moon god, and not the God of Abraham, Isaac, Moses and Jesus. Never mind that he wears around his neck a large cross as part of his office, a symbol that is not at all “neutral” for some Muslims and Jews. Of course, not wanting to give offense to my colleague, I promptly removed the postcard, placing it inside my office alongside treasured post cards sent to me by students studying abroad.

I share this story not to embarrass my colleague but because it speaks to my own position. I have lived the great majority of my life as a member of a Muslim minority community. I am deeply and thoroughly “Western”, as evidenced by the postcards I chose to decorate my door. Inspired by my mentor, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, I have worked on interfaith dialogue in my professional and personal life. And all too often, I find myself dealing with basic misunderstandings.

By now, people are well aware of the points of Muslim objection to the Pope’s statements. These have been described wonderfully by scholars such as John Borelli, John Esposito, and John Renard in various Jesuit and Catholic journals. As a Muslim who teaches theology in a Jesuit university, I was puzzled by the initial remarks of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI in Regensburg. I was not hurt or upset by His Holiness’s quoting the words of the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologos, as the Emperor was at war with Ottoman Muslim rulers who were laying siege to Constantinople. When one is at war, one often doesn’t present an accurate portrayal of one’s enemies. The Muhammad that the Emperor described as bringing “vile and inhuman” things is not the Prophet who is beloved by me and one billion other Muslims. And the statement by the Emperor that Islam was spread by the sword is simply inaccurate. A century after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, the Muslim population of Iran was approximately 10%, while that of the area now known as Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Israel and Palestine combined was no more than 20%. Clearly, the historical evidence does not support the stereotype of mass conversions at the point of a sword.

I was, however, puzzled that His Holiness did not seem to recognize the Greek intellectual heritage shared by Christians, Jews and Muslims. It was during Arab Muslim rule that the Greek philosophical tradition was preserved, commented upon, and transmitted to the European world. The great mediaeval Catholic theologian, St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, was dependent on a Muslim philosopher, Al-Farabi, for his knowledge of Aristotle. One cannot properly understand the European philosophical tradition of the Middle Ages without including the contributions of other Muslim philosophers such as Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd (known in Latin as Avicenna and Averroes). In the modern world, Aristotle is being read by Muslim theology students in Iran. This gives the lie to the simple and unhelpful dichotomy of “Islam” and “the West”.

I was heartened to hear the Pope’s apology, however, and even more delighted at his meeting on 25 September with ambassadors of Muslim nations. There, His Holiness affirmed and continued the work of his predecessor, the late Pope John Paul II, who was deeply concerned and involved with dialogue between Jews, Muslims, and Christians. It is through this dialogue that we will learn about each other, but also, more importantly, about ourselves. And perhaps we will gain a better understanding of each other’s symbols.

[This commentary was originally published in a Jesuit newsletter. Amir Hussain is an associate professor in the Department of Theological Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. His latest book, Oil and Water: Two Faiths, One God (Kelowna: Copper House, 2006) is an introduction to Islam for a North American Christian audience.]