Pope Benedict XVI is the ruler of the Vatican City State and the spiritual head of more than one billion Christians across the world. What he says has an impact on political and religious thinking as well as on interfaith relations in the world. On 12 September, he delivered a well-prepared theological lecture before his home crowd of Bavarian academics and students in which he made a thinly veiled attack on the Prophet Muhammad and the notion of Holy War (Jihad). But instead of making a frontal attack on Islam, he used the derogatory remarks against Islam by a 14th century Byzantine emperor, Manuel II Paleologus, to convey his own message and thus to absolve himself of any responsibility for such remarks. Manuel II Paleologus had said:
‘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 sword the faith he preached.’
Now, before I say anything whether such a remark has any basis in historical fact or is a mere crude misrepresentation of Islam, we should turn our attention to the method the Pope has used. It is common knowledge that whenever we use a quotation from other sources in our written or spoken words, we seek support for the particular point we may be making or we reject the view advanced by such a quotation by challenging it. To use a quotation in the former case does not need our comment; our using it evinces our – either direct or tacit — approval.
It seems the Pope has used the emperor’s words in support of his own criticism of Islam and of his theological standpoint. It may be a clever device, but it was in reality an unhealthy and unfortunate thing for a number of reasons.
First, Manuel’s formulation and accusation belongs to a particular era and historical setting in which the emperor was a direct participant in military and political struggle against the expanding Ottomans; however, his views on the Prophet and Islam have no relation to historical facts.
Secondly, the Pope is an influential leader in world affairs and he has a moral and political responsibility to help reach out to other faiths, especially Islam, to promote better interfaith relations in a world where conflicts and violence seem to be increasing; gross violations of human rights are taking place, and we are living through a time when international law and the norms of civilised behaviour are being eroded and ignored by the powerful and mighty states.
Thirdly, behind the seemingly scholarly rhetoric lies the Pope’s theology according to which Christianity is compatible with rationality, thus negating a similar compatibility in the case of Islam.
I do not intend to go into the details of such a theology, but such exclusivist views about the divine are excessively capricious and uncalled for in this century. His provocative and historically untenable remarks about Islamic teachings have led only to negative results; his ill-chosen words have inflamed the passions of Muslims throughout the world. In no way do I condone such violent responses, but at the same time we should be aware of the religious sensitivities of believers and not provoke them without good cause. We need to keep in mind that most believers, ‘the flock’, believe in a Divine Being and hold their holy books in high esteem. Indeed, they take their faiths seriously; they should not be assumed to be a gathering of philosophers, historians or doctors of theology capable of entering into dispassionate academic discussions. There are far too many people who are certain of their traditional beliefs and the authorities they rely upon. The British philosopher Bertrand Russell rightly says that the whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves but wiser people so full of doubts.
The political objectives?
The Pope’s speech comes amidst the growing anarchy and destruction in Iraq. The American war of aggression against Iraq has not gone according to the wishes of the Bush Administration. As a result of the militaristic policies of America in Iraq and its so-called ‘war against terror’, there is growing anger and frustration throughout the Muslim world against the American wars and terrorist policies in the Middle East. Some observers see the Pope adding his voice to throw his support in favour of President Bush and his allies in what they call ‘Islamic terror’ and portray Islam as a violent religion.
Evidently much of the Islamic world is going through an extremely difficult phase at this stage. Two Muslim countries, Afghanistan and Iraq, have been invaded and occupied by the armies of the New Crusaders – Bush and Blair – and two puppet regimes have been installed in these countries to serve the imperial interests. Also among the Western allies is Pakistan, whose ruler General Musharraf has admitted that America had threatened to bomb Pakistan back into the Stone Age if he did not join the American ‘war against terror’. This he did. I addition to launching major military operations in the Frontier Province and Balochistan, Pakistan has rounded up any of its nationals who showed hostility towards American policies in the region. This has been carried out by the intelligence services of Pakistan in return for millions of American dollars and more than seven hundred such victims handed over to the CIA. Where and how are these prisoners being held or what has happened to them? The American government gives no information. Thus the crimes against humanity continue to mount and the only explanation is the flat statement that there is a ‘war against terror’.
We all know that the Christian Right, especially evangelical and born-again Christians, are open supporters of the American invasion of Iraq, the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and the systematic killings of Palestinians on a regular basis, not to mention the recent Israeli war against Lebanon.
The Pope is a learned theologian. He certainly knows what is happening in the Muslim world at the hands of the Christian Powers. But instead of siding with the victims, he attacks them by distorting Islam and its Prophet as well as the true message of Jesus. This is quite a sharp reversal of the path pursued by his predecessor, John Paul II, who had stood for interfaith dialogue and called for respect for other religions. It is well known that as a cardinal in the Holy See, Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict) was opposed to John Paul II’s pursuit of dialogue. But the Vatican Council II (1962-65) had already taken some important decisions in the Catholic approach towards Islam and other religious traditions. To undermine these decisions of the Second Vatican Council by anyone, by whatever means, will constitute a leap in the wrong direction.
Benedict has held Christianity to be the foundation of Europe and just a few months before he was elected, he had spoken out against the Muslim country, Turkey, joining the EU. He has argued that Christian Europe should be defended. Turkey should seek partners in Muslim countries, not in Christian Europe.
Now, a brief comment on the charge against Muhammad and his so-called use of the sword to spread his faith. The Christian polemic against Islam is almost thirteen centuries old and Christian apologists have said and written much about it. To situate the whole discussion in a historical context, I did research for more than seven years on the topic. It has resulted in the publication of my book Perceptions of Islam in the Christendoms: A Historical Survey (Oslo: Solum Forlag, 2006). (The Norwegian Research Council had paid the cost of production to the publisher, and thus I have no financial interest in the sale of the book!) I have tried to show the problematic nature of such distorted views in detail, whereas Professor Oddbjørn Leirvik in his new book Islam og kristendom, Konflikt eller dialog? has given a brilliant account of the interaction between the two faiths and explored the possibilities of dialogue and cooperation, instead of confrontation, crude misrepresentations and mutual recriminations. I believe all those who are interested in historical facts will find these two books useful for study and reflection.
The present attempt by the Pope to claim that ‘violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul’; in other words, that such a view of God cannot be extended to Islamic teachings because here ‘God is absolutely transcendent’. He is ‘not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality’. I find such a formulation and explication simply baffling. This reminds us of the Holosphyros Controversy during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Manuel I Comnenus (r. 1143-80), where the official Melkite theologians had held that ‘the God of Muhammad was said to be holosphyros [made of solid metal beaten to a spherical shape] who neither begat nor was begotten’. If the Pope needed a good source for inspiration then he did chose the right epoch and the right mentors!
Finally, I would add only a short comment on the old Christian cliché that Muhammad stood for war and violence while Jesus stood for love and peace. There are many Christian believers who still believe this. There is no historical or scriptural evidence that Muhammad at any time in his life advocated war or encouraged his followers to spread Islam by means of the sword. But what did Jesus say?
‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the world. No, I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. I came to set sons against their fathers, daughters against their mothers, daughters-in-law against their mothers-in-law; a man’s worst enemies will be the members of his own family’ (Matthew 34-36).
I wonder if the Christian apologists by some strange mental confusion exchanged the roles of Muhammad and Jesus. But why do they still continue to ignore what the Bible says on the matter so clearly?
At the same time I want to emphasis that self-serving myths and dreams are not an alternative to historical facts. The question of forcible conversions in Islam is another big distortion because all the historical evidence points to the contrary. During the early period of Islamic Caliphate the Umayyad caliphs practically discouraged conversions to Islam. Far too many people had converted to Islam and that created administrative and financial problems for the State! In the Ottoman Empire, if any Muslim forced any Christian or Jew to convert to Islam, he was beheaded.