Islam and Logos: A Reply to Pope Benedict
By Shaikh Kabir Helminski
I lament the violent and disrespectful actions of a tiny minority of Muslims toward Christians in various parts of the world as a result of the Pope’s recent remarks. Such actions only advertise the ignorance of those engaged in them and, as these images are aired by the media worldwide, contribute to the misconceptions of non-Muslims. These reactive outbursts are, for some reason, more interesting to television viewers than examples of humility and reconciliation. Acts of rage make for dramatic viewing; patience, forbearance, and similar virtues attract far less attention. But inflammatory remarks by world leaders and the rage and reaction they provoke are part of an especially counter-productive cycle of irrationality and do not lead to the mutual understanding and respect that we must attain in the circumstances of today’s interconnected humanity.
As someone raised in the Catholic tradition, and educated by Jesuits, reading the complete text of the Pope’s remarks in Regensburg, I found myself in sympathy with much of what he had to say. But the remarks regarding Islam are very difficult to accept as being other than a denigration of Islam.
To summarize Pope Benedict’s key points as I understand them: Reason has a role to play in the dialogue among religions; reason should not be thought to apply only to strictly empirical, i.e. scientific subjects. Christianity, having emerged in the world through Greek texts, is profoundly and organically related to Greek philosophy. The Divine relates to the human realm through Logos, the Word, and by extension, Reason. The function of theology is to show the reasonableness of faith. Therefore reason plays an essential role in the dialogue of civilizations founded upon different religious traditions.
Unfortunately the Pope betrays his own stated principles when he refers to a dialog between a Byzantine Emperor and a Persian Islamic scholar in which it is implied that Islam intrinsically approves of “violent conversion.” This reference stands out, if I may say so, as a nasty digression in an otherwise well-reasoned address. Here is the Pope’s text:
“He (the Byzantine Emperor) 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 Pope’s position, rightfully, is that such religious coercion offends reason and religion. The central error in his thinking is the absolutely false statement: his (Muhammad’s) command to spread by the sword the faith he preached. No such command exists either from the mouth of Muhammad or within the verses of the Qur’an. To anyone who knows anything about Islam and Islamic history, the passages Pope Benedict quotes can only be viewed as malevolent fabrications, polemics that were perhaps more understandable six centuries ago, but hardly excusable in today’s world. How could Pope Benedict, obviously a man of significant erudition, have chosen to propagate this ignorance? If the thoughts of the Byzantine Emperor do not correspond to the Pope’s own beliefs, then why does he refer to them as “the starting point” for a discussion on religion and violence? Or if it is actually the case that he believes they represent the truth of Muhammad and Islam, then he has chosen to remain fundamentally ignorant of a religion that elicits the devotion of at least 20% of the human race?
As a point of clarification, for those reading this who really do not know the teachings or the history of Islam, it is undeniable that the Islamic dominion did in its early years spread across the Middle East and the Mediterranean region largely, though not exclusively, by military means. It displaced other empires which had also established themselves by military means: notably the Byzantine and Persian empires. What was significant, however, is that the Islamic order brought with it a freedom of religion that did not exist to the same extent under these other empires. Religious communities—Jews, Zoroastrians, and all sects of Christians—were allowed to live under their own religious laws in return for accepting status as protected peoples. They paid a tax, but were exempt from military service and from the charity (zakat) expected of Muslims. As the Qur’an says: Verily, those who have attained to faith [in this divine writ], as well as those who follow the Jewish faith, and the Christians, and the Sabians – all who believe in God and the Last Day and do righteous deeds – shall have their reward with their Sustainer; and no fear need they have, and neither shall they grieve (Surah 2: 62).
Forced conversion has universally been seen as unacceptable by virtually all major Islamic religious scholars and authorities, which explains why in Jerusalem, a city revered by Muslims, the sacred sites and religious communities of Judaism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Catholicism have survived and flourished over fourteen centuries of mostly Muslim rule.
It is in the Christian world, on the other hand, where the more egregious offenses against religious tolerance and co-existence have been found. And it is also not to be ignored that in the Byzantine Empire, from which the Pope’s “call to reason” is supposedly substantiated, torture and cruelty were virtually institutionalized:
“One may be amazed at the assertion that the Byzantine was humane, and refined in feeling, even to the point of sensitiveness. Too many bloody crimes stain the pages of Byzantine history — not as extraordinary occurrences but as regularly established institutions. Blinding, mutilation, and death by torture had their place in the Byzantine penal system. In the Middle Ages such horrors were not, it is true, unknown in Western Europe, and yet the fierce crusaders thought the Byzantines exquisitely cruel. In reading the history of this people, one has to accustom oneself to a Janus-like national character — genuine Christian self-sacrifice, unworldliness, and spirituality, side by side with avarice, cunning, and the refinement of cruelty. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume III
Let me try to explain further why the Pope’s choice of example engenders a reaction among many Muslims. Within recent decades Muslims feel that they have endured not only injustice but humiliation in Palestine, in Bosnia, in Chechnya, in Iraq, and in Lebanon. Furthermore, Muslims suffer a deep wound from 9/11, an act which all but a tiny fanatical, or shall I say criminal element in the Muslim community would repudiate. The emotional pain felt by the vast majority of Muslims over such events is immense.
The Pope’s references go right to the primary sources of Islamic faith. It would be one thing to criticize the loss of reason among Islamic extremists, and another to imply that Islam itself is the problem. Here is the crux of the matter: nowhere in the Pope’s address is there an invitation to dialog; instead there is the assertion that Catholics, by virtue of their rootedness in Greek rationality, have a unique claim to being “reasonable” and in accord with Logos.
The point is not to criticize the Pope, or whether he is right or wrong. It is urgent that more people become informed about what Islam intrinsically stands for.
The Pope’s address focused on the reconciliation of reason and faith, and the implied accusation that Islam converts at swordpoint and therefore offends reason. But it is noteworthy that the Qur’an, revealed in the 7th Century, often encourages human beings to use their reason in spiritual matters and proposes no theology that would challenge human reason. The Qur’an in more than seventy verses specifically invites people to reflection (tafakkur), understanding (‘aql), and reason (nuha). It is also widely appreciated that Islam incorporated the metaphysics and vocabulary of the Greeks during its early centuries by being deeply conversant with the Greek classics. In fact, Islamic civilization preserved the knowledge of the classical world until it good be handed off to Europe after Europe’s own Dark Ages.
The most that a reader of the Qur’an is asked to “believe” is that the Divine would have attempted to communicate with human beings over the course of time through various messengers, or prophets, sent to all human communities without exception. Moreover, the way to apprehend the Divine is through a combination of human reason and an open heart. The Qur’an continually points to the natural world and reminds people: In this are signs for people who use their intelligence.
According to Qur’anic teaching Adam, the primordial human being, is the recipient of the knowledge of the essential names (asma), and so has the capacity to perceive, understand, and act with reason. It is this investment of the Divine Word within us that makes us fully human.
The principle of Logos, by which I mean the controlling principle of the universe manifesting as speech, rather than being foreign to Islam, is amply conveyed by a variety of Qur’anic terms. Bayan, the principle of articulate speech with which the human being is endowed, is one of the most significant characteristics of human life. Another word, Kalimah, which occurs about fifty times, most often means variously Divine utterance, inspiration, and principle.
Moreover, Jesus Christ is described as a “Word” of God, though this is not to be confused with the Christic understanding of Logos as the second person of a trinity: God gives you good tidings of a Word from Him whose name is Messiah (Surah al Imran, 3:45). The significance of Jesus as a word of God is not explained, but is left as a theme for Muslims to ponder with respect.
I wish it were possible for Pope Benedict and many Muslims to explore the convergence of Christian and Islamic values: namely that faith in the Divine is not unreasonable or irrational, that if we observe what is going on within ourselves and in the empirical world and marvel at the sheer intelligence and creativity of it all, that our hearts and minds might be moved to accept that there is something going on here that suggests an invisible intelligence and, even more importantly, a creative power characterized by Love and Beauty. Or as the Qur’an expresses it:
Verily, in the creation of the heavens and of the earth, and the succession of night and day; and in the ships that speed through the sea with what is useful to man; and in the waters which God sends down from the sky, giving life thereby to the earth after it had been lifeless, and causing all manner of living creatures to multiply thereon; and in the change of the winds, and the clouds that run their appointed courses between sky and earth: [in all this] there are messages indeed for people who use their reason. And yet there are people who choose to believe in beings that allegedly rival God, loving them as [only] God should be loved: whereas those who have attained to faith love God more than all else. (Surah Baqarah, 2:164-165)
The Pope includes an assertion that the God of Islam is purely and extremely transcendent and therefore cannot even be relied upon to act in accordance with his own laws. “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.” Whatever Ibn Hazm might have written or believed, his rather extreme understanding of God’s transcendence in relation to man is merely a remnant of the now extinct Zahirite school of Islamic law, not an example of the classical tradition.
As the Qur’an says: God is closer to him (the human being) than his neck-vein (Surah Qaf, 50:16). Throughout the Qur’an the foremost attribute of the Divine is its Compassion toward creation: God, who has willed upon Himself the law of Compassion and Mercy (Surah Cattle, 6:12, translated by Muhammad Asad). This expression, “God has willed upon Himself” (kataba ala nafsihi) occurs in the Qur’an only twice—here and in verse 54 of this same surah – and in both instances with reference to His grace and mercy (rahmah); none of the other divine attributes has been similarly described. This exceptional quality of God’s grace and mercy is further stressed in 7:156— “My Compassion/Mercy overspreads everything.” The Qur’an is replete with examples of Allah’s solicitous nurturing and guidance of humanity: God “embraces all things with mercy and knowledge (Surah Mumin, 40:7). Allah is explicitly considered to be the God of Abraham, Moses, Jesus, etc. and Islam does not claim to bring anything new, but rather to restore the original purity of Divine Revelation. And here are two examples among the many that could be given which affirm the presence of the Divine manifest in the world around us. Wheresoever you look is the Face of God (Surah Baqarah, 2:115). We will show them Our signs on the farthest horizons and within their own selves until it becomes manifest to them that this is the Truth (Surah Fussilat, 41:53). In other words, the very Being of the Divine will be revealed not only in the natural world, but through sincere self-inquiry, as well.
Not only is Islam not at odds with reason and empirical science, from the very beginning Islam has encouraged science and has understood that the study of the natural world can lead toward knowledge of the Divine. This concept powerfully influenced Thomas Aquinas, who became acquainted with it through his lifelong study of the Arabic commentaries on the Greek classics, and it was Aquinas who first introduced the idea into Christianity that human beings could learn about the Divine from the natural world.
Furthermore, one of the central concepts in Islam is that of “fitrah,” the innate nature of the human being which instinctively knows the good, the true, and the beautiful. Turn your face with purity toward the primordial religion, according to the innate nature (fitrah) with which He has made humankind; do not allow what God has made to be corrupted. That is authentic religion, but most people do not understand (Surah Ar-Rum, 30:30). In other words, not only is there an innate natural law and within man the ability to grasp it (even without a religious hierarchy to interpret it), but authentic religion must itself conform with this innate truth.
The most important point to be grasped in today’s world is that the vast majority of Muslims should be viewed as allies in a common struggle for social justice and human dignity. It will be tragic if this polarization proceeds any further on the basis of misunderstanding. The extremists must be confronted for their distortion of traditional Islamic principles—principles which for 14 centuries have recognized religious pluralism and human rights. And, if it can be shown that contemporary or traditional Islamic formulations and teachings contradict basic human rights, then this must be corrected from within Islam itself.
Perhaps it is time for the Pope, if he is sincere, rather than lobbing rhetorical hand-grenades into the Muslim street, to sit down with a few contemporary Muslim men and women of wisdom and explore the common ground that might be found in these notions of faith and reason. The Dalai Lama met with world leaders of Islam in San Francisco in April of 2006, warmed their hearts, acknowledged their good intentions, and in so doing formed connections of compassion and understanding which will help to marginalize the extremists.
And for Muslims who might be inclined to take to the streets, it might be appropriate to remember the counsel of the Qur’an regarding conveying a message to people of other faiths: Invite to the way of your Sustainer with wisdom and beautiful urging; and discuss with them in the best and most gracious manner for your Sustainer knows best who strays from His Path and who receives guidance (Surah an-Nahl, 16:125).
Kabir Helminski has been a publisher of spiritual literature, a translator of the works of Rumi and others, and a spiritual teacher in the lineage of Jalaluddin Rumi. One recent book which he co-authored is The Belief Net Guide to Islam. His books on spirituality, Living Presence and The Knowing Heart, have been published in at least eight languages. He has toured as Shaikh with the Whirling Dervishes of Turkey, bringing Sufi culture to more than 100,000 people. He is now co-director of an international education project in Islamic education ( http://www.thebook.org ). Originally published in Q News. This article will appear in the next issue of Islamica. (Editors note: Islamica is the premier Islamic print magazine.)