Benedict XVI and Islam: In Search of Balance

Benedict XVI and Islam: In Search of Balance

John Renard, Saint Louis University

Pope Benedict XVI’s recent remarks about Islam offer, most unfortunately, an example of how ancient stereotypes continue to encrust Christian perceptions of Islam. No, I am not singling the Pope out for religious bigotry. I am merely attempting, as a concerned Roman Catholic and a specialist in Islamic Studies, to suggest how easily even a man of Benedict XVI’s well-known erudition, broad experience, and undoubted good will can arrive at unfair conclusions on the basis of inadequate information.

Pope Benedict begins with an item that he acknowledges is “rather marginal” to his topic. He refers to an observation by a 14th century Byzantine ruler whose capital was then under siege by Ottoman forces, concerning “holy war” (a widespread mistranslation of jihād). He assumes without explicit evidence that the Emperor knew the Qur’anic text, “There is no compulsion in religion.” The Pope further argues, significant scholarly opinion to the contrary notwithstanding, that the text dated from an early period when Muhammad was himself under siege in Mecca. Many scholars hold, however, that the text came after the Hijra (the “migration” from Mecca to Medina in 622), when Muhammad was very much a force to reckon with, and that it ought to be translated “Let there be no compulsion in religion.” The difference is important: a powerless Muhammad would naturally have a self-serving motive in issuing such a statement, whereas a Muhammad in control would have no such motive.

Pope Benedict observes further that the Emperor must have been aware of “later” Qur’anic developments of the concept and conditions of “holy war.” Given the general pattern of lack of first-hand knowledge of Islamic texts by even prominent medieval Christians, this is highly unlikely. The Pope then quotes, without a hint of disapproval, the Emperor’s statement, “Show me just what Muhammad 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.”

Precisely which command the Emperor (or the Pope) had in mind here is not clear. What is important in this context is that both are implicitly accepting a stereotype that applies no more to Muslims than to Christians, and which nevertheless the vast majority of Christians seem to accept as an unquestioned “fact.” Of course, there have been times and places in which political regimes ostensibly Muslim in orientation have pursued official policies of forced conversion. But Islamic authorities deserve no more blame for such policies over the centuries than Christian rulers who Catholicized much of the Western hemisphere through similar policies. Serious scholarship (by non-Muslims) has recently shown that the accepted image of Islam as (in the Pope’s words) “spreading the faith through violence” uniformly from the very beginning is simply not based on historical data. More than a century after the death of Muhammad, the Muslim population of Iran was approximately 10% percent of the total; while during the same period, ending around 750, Muslims accounted for no more than 20% of the inhabitants of Iraq and Greater Syria (including present-day Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and Palestine). Three and a half centuries beyond that, on the eve of the first Crusade, Christians remained the majority population of Syria. The data simply do not support the long-held stereotype of Islam as being universally spread by “the sword.”

Motives for conversion under Muslim political auspices have historically been far more varied and complex. I am not in denial about historical and current contexts in which the rights of non-Muslims in predominantly Muslim societies have been trampled. There is ample culpability to go around, however, and I merely wish to suggest that the historical reality of the spread of Islam is far different than the image so prevalent among non-Muslims. This unfortunate label has stuck to Muslims much as countless scurrilous conspiracy theories attributed to Muslim sources continue to plague Jews.

Pope Benedict goes on to observe approvingly that the Emperor explained how spreading the faith through violence “is something unreasonable.” The Emperor, nurtured on “Greek philosophy” therefore represents for the Pope a “rational” approach. In effect, he then casts Islam as the quintessential “non-rational” approach, with the statement, “But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent” and therefore beyond “any of our categories, even that of rationality.” In support of his position, the Pope cites a classic scholarly study of an eleventh century Iberian Muslim theologian, Ibn Hazm of Cordoba (d. 1064), who stands so far to the right in the broad spectrum of Islamic thought that one could be forgiven for considering his views extreme. Had the Pope chosen a study of the work of one of Baghdad’s most beloved sons, Ibn Hazm’s wonderfully moderate near-contemporary Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111), for example, he would have had to draw very different conclusions. It would, in any case, not be out of place to suggest that much of the vaunted “rationality” of medieval Christian thought owes more than a little to the work of Muslim luminaries like Ghazali and his most famous (posthumous) sparring partner, Ibn Rushd (aka Averroes), both of whom Aquinas cites.

Unfortunately the Pope has simply added more fuel to a fire of bigotry already burning out of control. He compounds the problem by praising as a “kind of enlightenment” the Biblical “mockery of gods who are merely the work of human hands” without acknowledging that the very same condemnation is a persistent theme in the Qur’an.

In a more positive vein, Pope Benedict observes that “in all honesty,” a strain of medieval Christian theological “voluntarism” (attributed to Duns Scotus in contrast to the thought of Augustine and Aquinas) “gives rise to positions which clearly approach those of Ibn Hazm and might even lead to the image of a capricious God.” Still, while unfairly marginalizing the likes of Duns Scotus, the burden of the Pope’s argument presumes inaccurately that Ibn Hazm represents mainstream Islamic thought. He infers that Islam therefore represents a most dangerous form of religious absolutism in which zeal for an utterly transcendent God, who eludes rational inquiry and “is not even bound to truth and goodness,” threatens the foundations of civilization. “Irrational” thus joins the list of unjustified stereotypes so liberally applied to Muslims in our time. What the Pope regards as irrational in Islam’s impossibly uncompromising monotheism is really not so distant, theologically speaking, from Christianity’s often convoluted explanation of the Trinity.

Given the overall thrust of his address, the argument that Pope Benedict was merely expressing views not his own and with which he does not concur rings hollow. At no point does he express or imply disapproval of the Emperor’s observations. Indeed, the Pope legitimizes those comments by using them as a springboard for his own reflections. Nor is this merely a matter of a passing reference. The Pope mentions the Emperor specifically three times, and the citation is the pivot of the middle third of the address. Pope Benedict’s remarks have been characterized in the media as referring to “some of the teachings of Muhammad” as evil and inhuman. The actual impact is unfortunately more ominous. He cites a more inclusive condemnation, suggesting that “only things evil and inhuman” are to be found in those teachings that one can call “new,” implying that Muhammad was an innovator of religious violence. This is an astonishing conclusion, assuming that the Emperor had read the Old Testament. The Pope’s observations would have had far more credibility and greater positive impact had they taken their inspiration from the scores of examples throughout history in which Christians have instigated and been complicit in large scale violence in the name of God. All the rationality of Augustine and Aquinas, multiplied a hundredfold, could not restrain medieval and early modern drives to claim both bodies and souls for Christ. Nothing fuels bigotry like focusing on the mote in another’s eye so resolutely that the beam in one’s own eye fades from view.

Whatever guise it assumes, bigotry remains the most insidious and corrosive engine of social injustice. Bigotry is so dangerous precisely because it hides in plain sight. Generations, even centuries, may elapse before members of a society begin to recognize that what has passed for high morality since time immemorial has actually justified repression and injustice. Bigotry’s targets include such perennial favorites as laziness, promiscuity, drunkenness, violence, dishonesty, uncleanness, incorrect religious belief, and the odd threat of allegiance to a divine emperor back home. It is precisely the broad unquestioning acceptance of moral outrage against these and other perceived social and religious ills that makes bigotry so difficult to name and counteract. From the perspective of the accusing majority, bigotry is always right, always upstanding, always patriotic, always beyond reproach … and always a projection of what accusers fail to recognize in themselves.

Across America today, refusal to accept as fundamental the simple humanity of people who call themselves Muslims is a hallmark of a new bigotry. As with all forms of bigotry, it only “makes sense” to regard Muslims with at least a modicum of suspicion. After all, “they” have declared “holy war” and are willing (unlike any other class of people known to social science) to kill and be killed for what they believe. Unfortunately, the alleged “grain of truth” that one can so readily discern beneath nearly every form of bigotry is too often founded on misperceptions, faulty information, or downright malice. In the case of Islam, serious historical scholarship that has begun to slip the gravitational pull of unchallenged assumptions remains in its relative infancy. There is no such thing as unbiased interpretation of history, but acknowledging the need to counteract our biases as vigorously as possible is an important start.


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