Issue 128 , November 2006
The Pope was wrong
Pope Benedict’s recent comments on Islam were riddled with inaccuracies
It seems unlikely that the Pope, in his recent remarks, deliberately sought to injure the generally flourishing world of Muslim-Christian dialogue. Since Benedict?s speech in Regensburg on 12th September, Rome has issued no fewer that four apologetic statements, a sign, surely, that the offence taken was not intended.
More troubling for Islam experts was the Vatican team?s evident failure to brief the pontiff. While his knowledge of Catholic doctrine is, unsurprisingly, profound, Muslim theologians have been puzzled by the numerous inaccuracies of his comments on Islam. One that caused distress as well as bewilderment was the claim that a particular Koranic decree?that “there shall be no compulsion in religion”?pre-dated the Prophet?s ascent to political power. A glance at the classical commentaries shows clearly that the verse appeared much later. In fact, based on this verse, classical Islamic law criminalised the forced conversion of Christians and Jews, and Islam never produced an institution to rival the centuries-long reign of the Inquisition. One of Islam?s leading theologians, Aref Nayed, described Benedict as, “astonishingly oblivious to the use of torture, cruelty and violence in the history of the Catholic church, not only against Muslims, but against Jews and even fellow Christians.”
The Inquisition, of course, is no more, and like some other Catholic modernists, Benedict has insisted on a conspicuous (and welcome) departure from medieval thinking. The key Enlightenment doctrine of freedom of conscience was once rejected by the papacy as a gateway to relativism, and Catholic rulers were consistently urged to maintain Christian legal privilege. Even in the late 19th century, Pope Leo XIII issued official condemnations of those who would “treat the various religions (as they call them) alike, and bestow upon them promiscuously equal rights and privileges.” Although arch-conservatives continue to regard the new teachings as a disastrous concession to ideals of clearly secular origin, Christendom has changed drastically for the better, and today is often at the forefront of the human rights movement. Still, it is surely not right to identify the papacy?s current commitment to religious freedom with its historic teachings.
Another theme of Benedict?s speech that baffled Muslims was his distinction between a Catholic concept of a God who must act in accordance with reason, and the supposed Islamic view that God can only be fully free if he has the ability to act irrationally (see Edward Skidelsky, Prospect November 2006). The Pope acknowledges a spectrum of Catholic views but cites only one Islamic thinker, Ibn Hazm of Cordova, whose view of an essentially non-rational, capricious God was rejected by virtually every other Muslim. Far from teaching an irrational obedience to a non-rational deity, mainstream Islamic theology insists on the systematic use of reason, since the Koran itself asks its audience to deduce the existence of God from his orderly signs in nature. Of the two schools of Sunni orthodoxy, Ash?arism and Maturidism, the latter?the orthodoxy of perhaps 80 per cent of Muslims?is particularly insistent on the rationality of God?s actions.
Benedict?s speech saluted the Greek dimension of the New Testament, and proposed that it supply Europe with a special relationship with Christianity. Many Muslims are uncomfortable with the implications of this for current debates over citizenship and immigration. Some have recalled that the original St Benedict of Nursia, the “Patron of Europe,” was famous for defending Catholicism from the semi-literate and warlike barbarians who had invaded from the east. The new Pope, it is claimed, chose his name because he feels that the growing Muslim presence in some ways recalls that threat.
Yet the average Turk in Hamburg or beur in Paris is not a follower of Attila the Hun. Muslims too are heirs to Greek rationality; indeed, one of the first great endeavours of Islamic civilisation was the systematic translation of Greek philosophical classics into Arabic. Advanced Islamic theology is shot through and through with Greek rationalism, so that three quarters of a classical Muslim theology text is usually taken up with logic and other intellectual methods of Greek ancestry.
The idea that Islam is deeply alien to Europe often seems strangely akin to antisemitism. (The BNP was ecstatic over Benedict?s speech.) Jews used to be told, by the church and by all Europe, that they were alien harbingers of a xenophobic creed, enemies of reason and stubbornly resistant to integration. That view is no longer tolerable in polite society. But is it possible that the underlying instinct is not entirely dead?