What the Pope got wrong about Islam, what he got dangerously wrong, what he got right and a modest proposal on inter-faith dialogue
F. Gregory Gause, III
University of Vermont
Lest my fellow Catholics take too much offense at the cheeky title, let me lay out my literal bona fides at the outset. I am a believing and practicing Catholic, an active member of my parish (Immaculate Heart of Mary, in Williston, Vermont). I teach in our Confraternity of Christian Doctrine program (Sunday school, for the non-Catholics), serve on the parish council and am privileged to distribute the Holy Eucharist as a lay minister. I am the proud product of sixteen years of Catholic education. I thank God for the Sisters of St. Joseph, the Brothers of the Holy Cross, the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales and the Jesuits, who made me both an educated person and a better person than I would have been without them. I am no expert in theology, but the Jesuits made me take three courses in philosophy and three courses in theology before they would give me my bachelor’s degree, so I have a familiarity with Catholic doctrine and its philosophical tradition. I am no expert in Islamic law or philosophy, but as someone who has studied the politics and history of the Middle East for my entire professional life, I have more than a nodding familiarity with those subjects as well. As both a Catholic and Middle East scholar, I was disheartened by the remarks about Islam made by Pope Benedict XVI in his address of 12 September 2006 at the University of Regensburg in Germany. My dismay centered more on points in the speech that were not highlighted in the media coverage of the controversy.
The controversy revolved around the Pope’s infelicitous (to put it mildly) quotation from the “dialogue” between the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus and a Persian interlocutor, in which the Emperor accuses the Prophet Muhammad of bringing no new good thing into the world, but rather things that are “evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” The historians of Islam are unanimous that the Emperor got it wrong. Islam was NOT spread by the sword and Muhammad did not order it to be spread by the sword. Conversion to Islam was overwhelmingly a gradual process. In many areas in the Muslim empire, it took centuries before a majority of the population became Muslim. The Muslim empire spread by the sword, but what empire or state did not? The Muslim faith did not spread by the sword. The Pope knew enough about the Quran to cite Surah 2: 256, that there is no compulsion in religion, and to reference the fact that this was probably an early surah, before the period of the Prophet’s political role in Medina. He should have known better than to cite, even if he did not agree with it, a reference to the spread of Islam by the sword.
For me, the more dangerous assertion in the Pope’s speech was underplayed in the media. He raised the issue of forced conversion to make the point that reason precludes forced conversion, and “not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature.” Since His Holiness accepts the idea that forced conversion was part of Islam, this leads him to question whether Muslims believe that God is bound by reason. Here he turns to theology. He makes the argument, absolutely correctly, that the dominant strain in Muslim theology is that God is absolutely transcendent, omnipotent and inscrutable, not bound by any human category, including reason. The debate in the 10th century between the Mu’tazali rationalists, who were steeped in Greek philosophy and argued that, in effect, God is bound by His reason, and their opponents, who argued for the absolute transcendence of God, was decided against the Mu’tazilis. The Pope concedes that a similar debate occurred in Catholic theology about a century later, between rationalists like Thomas Aquinas and voluntarists like Duns Scotus and William of Occam (he of the famous razor). That debate was decided the other way, in favor of those who argued that God is bound by His reason.
All this is very esoteric. It reminds me of efforts by some of my less pious classmates in my religion classes to trap our teachers with questions like, “Is God so powerful that He could make a rock so big that He couldn’t lift it?” My teachers’ response was usually some variant of “shut up.” But for voluntarists like the winners in the Muslim philosophical debate and the losers in the Catholic debate, the answer to the question is clear: “Of course God can. God can do anything He wills.”
It is on this point about faith and reason that the Pope makes his most serious error, that Islam is not a faith that respects reason. In the footnotes to his talk, added after the controversy arose, he writes, “In quoting the text of the Emperor Manuel II, I intended solely to draw out the essential relationship between faith and reason. On this point I am in agreement with Manuel II, but without endorsing his polemic” (my italics). The Pope, while professing his respect for Islam, doubts that it is a faith which respects reason, and thus implicitly questions the value of dialogue with it.
This is just profoundly wrong. His Holiness is an academic theologian, and thus would naturally look to theology for the essence of the role of reason in any religion. As I said above, his reading, at least on a superficial level, of the relation of reason to God’s essence in mainstream Sunni thinking is correct (though he ignores other important strains in Islamic theology, including all of Shi’ism, in his argument). However, it ignores the profound grounding in Greek rationalism that Muslim philosophers like al-‘Ashari, who argued against the Mu’tazilis, couched their points. It also ignores the absolutely central role of reason in areas of Islamic intellectual and philosophical development outside of theology. Law is central here. Muslim philosophers might not use the instruments of human reason to question the Quran itself (as the Mu’tazilis did), but in their development of shari’a, Islamic law, from its sources in the Quran and the hadiths they relied enormously on human reason. Reasoning by analogy (qiyas) has been a central element in the development of shari’a. The application of shari’a to specific cases is completely dependent upon the reason of the judge. To say that Islam, as a religion, is inimical to reason is just not true. Its entire legal edifice, developed over the centuries, refutes this charge.
I believe that Pope Benedict’s point regarding Islam and reason was meant to call into question the utility of the inter-faith dialogue that his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, actively encouraged. After all, there is not much point in talking with people who do not respect reason. Despite my differences with the Pope in his reading of Islam, I agree with his implied position on inter-faith dialogue, if that dialogue is centered on theological matters. There really is not much for Catholics and Muslims to discuss about theology. Such a dialogue would be an erudite version of the Monty Python “Argument Clinic” routine (“Jesus of Nazareth is the son of God.” “No, he isn’t.” “Yes, he is.”) rather than a real exchange.
But there is plenty to discuss about common understandings of ethics, about how we fallible human beings should deal with each other as children of God. Here Catholic representatives have raised an important point (though the Pope did not deal with it in the Regensburg speech): reciprocity. Muslims see it as their right not only to practice their religion in Christian-majority countries, but also to proselytize in those countries. In our modern understanding of individual and religious rights in the West, we do not challenge those rights. Neither does the Catholic Church. However, while Christians have the right to practice their faith in almost all Muslim countries (Saudi Arabia is the great exception), there are often numerous regulations (regarding matters like the construction of churches) which act to constrain the implementation of that right. More directly, Muslim countries in general do not allow Christians to work to spread their faith, as Muslims are permitted to do in the West.
The reciprocity issue needs to be on the table as Catholics and Muslims continue their inter-faith dialogue, a dialogue that must be based both on reason and on mutual respect. The difficulties that the reciprocity issue might raise in such dialogues cannot be wished away and should not be ignored. But these difficulties should not obscure the great commonalities in the ethical systems of Christianity and Islam. It is the reaffirmation of those shared views on the sanctity of God’s creation, particularly of human life, that can help us overcome the arguments of extremists and fanatics in both cultures. Political trends now regrettably tend to draw the Christian West and the Muslim Middle East apart. Honest and sincere dialogue between Christian and Muslim religious leaders is absolutely essential to preventing these tensions from becoming a true clash of civilizations. Pope Benedict should be part of the solution here, but if he acts on the false premise that Islam is not a religion of reason, he will just add to the problem.
Pax vobiscum. ‘Alaikum salam.
F. Gregory Gause III is professor of Political Science at the University of Vermont.