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The Pope, the Emperor and the Persian Preacher - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Let us get one thing out of the way first. The Pope, like anyone else, has the right to express his opinions, even if, he offends some people. Those who disagree with him also have the right to respond by exercising freedom of speech. However, they are not allowed to kill priests and burn churches- acts expressly forbidden in Islam.

Now let us turn to what Pope Benedict XVI had to say in his lecture at the University of Regenburg in Germany last week.

Contrary to first impressions, the lecture was not aimed primarily as an attack on Islam as a faith that, divorced from reason, is violent. The Pope’s principal target was Protestant Christianity in all its versions.

The Pope’s thesis is simple: from early days, thanks to Saint Paul, Christianity discovered Hellenic philosophy. This “distillation” was a rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek enquiry.

According to Benedict: ” Despite the bitter conflict with those Hellenistic rulers who sought to accommodate it forcibly to the customs and idolatrous cult of the Greeks, biblical faith, in the Hellenistic period, encountered the best of Greek thought at deep level, resulting in a mutual enrichment evident especially in the later wisdom literature.”

In other words, what emerged was no longer Christianity as its founders intended, but a new synthesis of “genuine enlightenment and religion.”

Throughout the lecture, Benedict juxtaposes faith and reason, creating a dialectic he uses for an attack on Protestantism that, he claims, started the process of “de-hellenisation” of Christianity with the Reformation in the 16th century.

The process continued with “the liberal theology of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries” inspired by Pascal’s distinction between the God of philosophers and the God of Abraham.

In that second stage, the message of “liberal theologians was to” return simply to the man Jesus and his simple message, underneath the accretions of theology and, indeed, of hellenisation. ”

There are several problems with Benedict’s analysis.

First, he assumes that religions need the imprimatur of Reason that, despite giving it a capital R, he does not define. Later, he attacks what he calls “a modern concept of reason” which he defines as “a synthesis between Platonism (Cartesianism) and empiricism-a synthesis confirmed by the success of technology.”

One is left wondering whether there is an ultimate Reason against which religions could be measured.

The fact, however, is that all that a religious system needs is to be reasonable in its own terms, that is to say have its inner logic and consistency.

Seen from the point of view of scientific reason, all religions would appear unreasonable. At the same time, even the most successful religions would appear unreasonable, when, judged in terms of other faiths. (For example, a Buddhist might find Christianity unreasonable and vice-versa).

Benedict’s core message is an argument in favour of organised religion and a rejection of secular ethics that he sees as a fruit of the scientific revolution.

He says: “The subject decides, on the basis of his experiences, what he considers tenable in matters of religion, and the subjective ‘conscience’ becomes the sole arbiter of what is ethical. In this way, though, ethics and religion lose their power to create a community and becomes a completely personal matter.”

According to Benedict we now have “a third stage of de-hellenisation” symbolised by multiculturalism, especially in Europe.

Benedict presents Christianity as a co-production, a synthesis of Abrahamic faith and Greek philosophy, and tries to reformulate it as an ideology for the West, more specifically Europe.

Benedict says: ” The West has long been endangered by {} aversion to questions which underlie its rationality, and can only suffer great harm by them.”

Since a majority of Christians are not Europeans, Benedict’s Eurocentric position is intended not as a religious message but as a political appeal to Europeans to re-discover their identities as “Hellenised Christians” in the face of mass immigration by peoples of other faiths, especially Islam. In this way Christianity becomes an aspect of European culture and an expression of identity even of atheists in the West.

It is against that background that the Pope’s reference to Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologos should be analysed.

Sometime in 1391 of the Christian era, the Emperor received a Persian preacher (da’ee) in a barracks near Ankara, now Turkey’s capital. The two engaged in dialogues lasting several days, dealing with the structures of faith in the Bible and the Koran.

This was not unusual as the tradition of sending da’ees to invite non-Muslims, especially foreign rulers, to Islam had been shaped over centuries. In his notes about the dialogue, Paleologos says that he told the visiting Persian scholar that Muhammad had commanded that his faith be spread by the sword.

There are several problems with this.

To start with, Paleologos could not have known what Muhammad had said.

At the time, there were no Greek or Latin translations of the Koran. (The first translations appeared decades after that encounter in Ankara.) Lacking enough information, Paleologos was, therefore, engaging in propaganda rather than a theological dispute.

The presence of the Persian da’ee, presumed to be Rashidedeen of Baylaqan, showed that Muslims wished to spread their faith through propagation rather than the sword. While always seeking to extend its territory, Islam seldom used the sword to force conversions. For example, Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, was never part of any Islamic empire.

There is another problem with Benedict’s account of the encounter. He has only one side of the story. Had he studied the Persian scholar’s side, he would have found out two important facts.

The first is that, at the time, Muslims were better versed in Greek philosophy than Christians were. After it was adopted as the official religion of the Roman Empire by Constantine the Great, Christianity organised a campaign of de-hellenisation that wiped the achievements of Greek philosophy from European collective memory for centuries. Without exaggerating the importance of Islam’s role in rediscovering the Greek heritage, and providing Syriac, Arabic and Persian translations of some key texts of Hellenism, it is certain that Muslims played a crucial part in preserving and, later, transmitting, that important part of the European cultural heritage. At the time that Farabi, Avicenna, Nasser Khosrow and other Muslim philosophers were studying Aristotle, known to Muslims as “The First Teacher”, few in Christendom were allowed access to his forbidden material. Saint Thomas Aquinas tried to create a synthesis of Christianity and Hellenism, by “baptising” Aristotle, centuries after Muslim philosophers had adopted the Greek sage.

For over a thousand years, Christianity, especially in its Raman version, fought to efface all memory of Hellenism. Even the Greek Orthodox Church, of which Paleologos was a member, behaved as if history had began with the birth of Jesus. It is no accident that Benedict, in his defence of Hellenism, quotes Paleologos. The reason is that, with the exception of Julian the Apostate, the Pope would not find a single ruler on the Roman side who, could be presented as heir to the Hellenic heritage.

That Paleologos had not read the Koran is no surprise. However, that Benedict also appears not to have read it is surprising. This is borne out by the fact that Benedict describes the Second Surah of the Koran, “The Heiffer” (Al-Baqarah) as one of “the early period when Muhammad was powerless and under threat.” In that Surah the Koran makes it clear that “there should be no ” compulsion in faith” ( la ikrah fi al-din).

The Pope says : ” According to the experts this is one of the surahs of the early period when Muhammad was still powerless and under threat.” But naturally the emperor also knew the instructions, developed later and recorded in the Koran, concerning holy war.” The implication is that Muhammad would say one thing when powerless and another when powerful.

The Surah, was, in fact, written in 624 or 625, or the middle period, when Muhammad was a powerful head of a state in Yathrib ( Medina), and commander of a Muslim army.

Benedict, quoting the Lebanese Christian theologian Theodore Khoury, says : The emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy” it was self-evident that ” not to act in accordance with Reason was contrary to God’s nature.”

This means that Paleologos was “reasonable” not because he was a Christian but because he was a Byzantine “shaped by Greek philosophy”.

The Pope, still quoting Khoury, recalls that Ibn Hazn (sic),insisted that God is beyond Reason and that He is not bound ” even by His own word, and that nothing obliges Him to reveal the truth to us.”

The fact is that Muslim scholars, familiar though they were with Aristotelian categories, never tried to fit God into any of them. Theirs was a transcendent deity that could not be understood by mere human reason, let alone judged by it.

In Islamic monotheism, the One is not bound by the attributes of the Many. This is because for the One to be stable in its one-ness it is imperative for the Many to be confirmed in its many-ness. Thus the One could be itself and its opposite.

As the poet, Sana’i, put it:

“The Exulted One is both this and that

Free of all worldly limits.”

All that, however, does not mean that Muslims should go around acting unreasonably, including imposing their faith on others by the sword. It is God who is not bound by human reason, not human beings. To assume that God can and must act solely within human reason would cast doubt on the fundamentals of all monotheistic religions.

It was in similar terms that Leibniz, among others, developed his arguments against Spinoza, and other philosophers of the Enlightenment, who tried to fit God into a system understood through human reason alone.

The Pope makes a passing reference to Jihad that, falling for the common perceptions in the West, he translates into “Holy War”. Jihad, however, should not be confused with ” ghazva”, nor a mujahed with a gahzi. There is not enough space to treat that subject in a single article. It would be a good idea for the Vatican or any other authority of other major organised religions to host a seminar on Islam and Christianity and the ethics of war to provide both sides, and others who might be interested, with a better understanding of the subject.

Benedict is right: all faiths would benefit from dialogue. However, for dialogue to be fruitful, it is necessary for the dialogists to study each other’s beliefs more seriously.

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.

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