The Pope and the Muslim World

Sheila Musaji

Posted Sep 16, 2006      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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The Pope and the Muslim World

Sheila Musaji

Today, Pope Benedict XVI apologized for the speech he gave which has caused so much anguish in the Muslim world.  The Vatican released a statement that said:  “The Holy Father is very sorry that some passages of his speech may have sounded offensive to the sensibilities of Muslim believers.”  The full text of the Vatican Statement on the speech can be found here.  The key section is as follows:

[”The position of the Pope concerning Islam is unequivocally that expressed by the conciliar document Nostra Aetate: “The Church regards with esteem also the Muslims. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all-powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, Who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting” (no. 3).

The Pope’s option in favor of interreligious and intercultural dialogue is equally unequivocal. In his meeting with representatives of Muslim communities in Cologne, Germany, on 20 August 2005, he said that such dialogue between Christians and Muslims “cannot be reduced to an optional extra,” adding: “The lessons of the past must help us to avoid repeating the same mistakes. We must seek paths of reconciliation and learn to live with respect for each other’s identity.”

As for the opinion of the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus, which he quoted during his Regensburg talk, the Holy Father did not mean, nor does he mean, to make that opinion his own in any way. He simply used it as a means to undertake _ in an academic context, and as is evident from a complete and attentive reading of the text _ certain reflections on the theme of the relationship between religion and violence in general, and to conclude with a clear and radical rejection of the religious motivation for violence, from whatever side it may come. On this point, it is worth recalling what Benedict XVI himself recently affirmed in his commemorative Message for the 20th anniversary of the Inter-religious Meeting of Prayer for Peace, initiated by his predecessor John Paul II at Assisi in October 1986: ” ... demonstrations of violence cannot be attributed to religion as such but to the cultural limitations with which it is lived and develops in time. ... In fact, attestations of the close bond that exists between the relationship with God and the ethics of love are recorded in all great religious traditions.”

The Holy Father thus sincerely regrets that certain passages of his address could have sounded offensive to the sensitivities of the Muslim faithful, and should have been interpreted in a manner that in no way corresponds to his intentions. Indeed it was he who, before the religious fervor of Muslim believers, warned secularized Western culture to guard against “the contempt for God and the cynicism that considers mockery of the sacred to be an exercise of freedom.”

In reiterating his respect and esteem for those who profess Islam, he hopes they will be helped to understand the correct meaning of his words so that, quickly surmounting this present uneasy moment, witness to the “Creator of heaven and earth, Who has spoken to men” may be reinforced, and collaboration may intensify “to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom” (Nostra Aetate no. 3).

Whether this statement will or will not  end the controversy is difficult to predict especially since this is not the first time his views on Islam have been questioned.  He spoke out against Turkey’s being admitted into the EU because Europe is “Christian”.  Back in January there were a number of articles stating that he had said privately that Islam is incapable of reform, according to a Father Fessio, the provost of Ave Maria University in Florida:  “And immediately the holy father, in his beautiful calm but clear way, said, well, there’s a fundamental problem with that because, he said, in the Islamic tradition, God has given His word to Mohammed, but it’s an eternal word. It’s not Mohammed’s word. It’s there for eternity the way it is. There’s no possibility of adapting it or interpreting it, whereas in Christianity, and Judaism, the dynamism’s completely different, that God has worked through his creatures.” 

The history of the current controversy is as follows:

On September 12th, Pope Benedict XVI gave a speech in Germany which quickly turned into an international incident, and has raised the issue of the effectiveness of dialogue.

Muslims all over the world have condemned the Pope’s statements as bigotry.  There have been calls for him to retract his remarks.  Pakistan’s Parliament has condemned his statements, and many Muslim countries have threatened to recall their ambassadors to he Vatican.

The earlier response from the Director of the Vatican’s Press Office was less than satisfying.

Pope Benedict is supposed to visit Turkey shortly, however the Turkish Religious Affairs Ministry has spoken against his statements, and the Turkish PM has demanded that the Pope withdraw his words.  The Turkish trip may be in jeopardy as a result.

And most alarmingly, we are hearing reports from some countries of Muslims reacting violently, attacking churches and behaving in a totally un-Islamic way.  There is no justification for this sort of violent response.  This is shameful.  People who behave like this are terrorists, and they should be arrested and punished.  They may be Muslims but they do not represent Islam.  They are criminals and they are a danger to all of humanity. 

In his speech he quoted from a 14th century dialogue between a Byzantine Christian Emperor and Ibn hazm, a Persian philosopher who proposed a number of theories that are so unique that his followers are sometimes described as comprising a distinct madhab (school of law):  “He said, I quote, ‘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’.”  To many Muslims the Pope in this speech appeared to endorse the view, contested by most Muslims, that early Muslims spread their religion by violence. 

That the speech might have been understood as blaming Islam itself for the violence of some Muslims can be seen even in the comments of many non-Muslims. Robert Spencer thought that the Pope was suggesting that Islam was violent.  Some non-Muslims found it difficult to believe that this was a simple misunderstanding, and some non-Muslims have seen this as “exploring  the philosophical and historical differences between Islam and Christianity by citing the concept of jihad and referencing Muhammad by name, while sending “the world a signal that it’s time for hard questions - not hugs and handshakes.”  Another thought that the Pope’s use of the 14th century quote was important in that it referred to Islam’s violent history.  One interesting commentator says “Rather than criticising Islam, the Pope is actually offering it a helping hand by suggesting that it do away with the cycle of violence. He also asks Islam not to leave the cycle of “Reason” or better still, he urges it to engage Christianity in a dialogue for reasons related to ethics.”

There are obviously many Muslims and non-Muslims who did not understand what the Pope said or meant to say according to the Pope’s “apology” or statement issued this morning.

The following statement by Nasir Shamsi is interesting in that it expresses many Muslim’s understanding of this issue:  “Nobody among the Muslims, even the so called ” fundamentalist ” attribute the above statement to the Prophet of Islam. The above statement is a fabrication by the orientalist detractors of Islam and the Prophet. There is no debate on this issue within the Muslim world. Any student of Quran understands the nature and rationale of the verse relating to La ikrah (no force) and jahidu (fight) and knows there is no contradiction between the two. The former relates to the universal rule that nobody will be forced to change his religion. The latter relates to the permission to fight in self-defence, when you are attacked or forced out of your homes, or stopped from professing your faith. What is wrong with that? Are these not the recognised rules in the contemporary world? How does this contradict the La ikrah (no force) in religion verse? In fact, the two orders complement each other, that is…..neither you will force in regard to their religion, nor you will let others force you in regard to your religion.”

The point of the concern many Muslims feel about this speech is that the Pope began the speech as saying that it was raising a question “in the context of the tradition of the Christian faith”, and then in a lengthy philosophical and theological discourse he begins by showing the two points of view he sees as conflicting by using the example of a 14th century discourse between a Muslim and a Christian.  Without further elaboration it is obviously easy for both Muslims and non-Muslims to misunderstand his point.  Without further elaboration it is also easy for non-Muslims to misunderstand why so many Muslims are so upset, and it is difficult for Muslims to understand how a dialogue can begin with an insult.

When world leaders make statements - like the President of Iran, the President of the U.S.,  and now the Pope -  that seem to justify the positions of extremists that is a serious concern, however, before responding we need to be absolutely certain we have seen the full text of their statements and if necessary checking the accuracy of the translations. This is very worrisome in the current climate when even the U.S. Congress is “debating” whether or not we are engaged in a clash of civilizations.  The New York Times had an article today made this point clearly:  “The world listens carefully to the words of any pope. And it is tragic and dangerous when one sows pain, either deliberately or carelessly. He needs to offer a deep and persuasive apology, demonstrating that words can also heal.”

The response to the Pope’s philosophical and theological statements needs to be made by Muslim philosophers and theologians who can engage in dialogue with their Catholic peers.  American Muslims have called for just such a dialogue.

If we are to avoid a clash of civilizations all of us must pray that incidents like this one can be turned from examples of mutual misunderstanding and distrust to opportunities for real dialogue and mutual understanding.


First published 9/16/2006