Lebanon, Asharq Al-Awsat-It is difficult to define the aims behind Pope Benedict XVI’s lecture, entitled Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections, which he delivered at the University of Bonn last month. Did he want to present a new image and interpretation of the evolutionary ‘history’ of the Christian creed in a way that reconciles Catholic tradition with modern secularism by tying Catholic ‘faith’ to Greek philosophy – which he believes to be the foundation of modern Europe? If this was his intention, then he missed the point because the reason behind the Hellenic revival during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment eras was two-pronged: The first was a humanization that was incompatible with religion, seeking refuge in Greek paganism against the Catholic tradition specifically. The second was to redefine the European identity by considering the Greeks the founders of one of the earliest civilizations, and of the first states to be distinguished from the Aryans and other Indo-European people. It is common knowledge that since the beginning of the 10th Century (perhaps even earlier than that, according to historians of the French Annales School that the Catholic Church was of a Roman affiliation, following the holy Roman Empire – in which case the Pope is in direct contradiction (if that was his intention) with the history of his own Church!
Did the Pope attempt to debate with his Protestant opponents, with whom he has struggled throughout his life, by arguing that Christian theology had not changed since the Greek translation of the Old Testament produced at Alexandria, the Septuagint, in the 2nd century A.D.? And since the New Testament was introduced into Greek form by St. Paul, as he stated in his lecture? If this was his intention, then again, he missed the point. This is because Protestants were obliged to go with the flow of modernity, secularism and Judaism while getting rid of the mild Greek characteristic of the Old Testament and the Hellenic “Gnostic” feature of the New Testament. Moreover, major Protestant churches no longer have any believers and followers, as the latter have become entrapped by new bibles that are quick to follow any traces of direct contact with Jesus Christ himself, even without a theology or book!
If the Pope wasn’t addressing modernists; to whom religion no longer has a place in their lives, nor the Protestants and Neo-Evangelicals who couldn’t care less about their ancient or recent Greek origins, then who was he addressing? Let’s first sum up the Pope’s lecture and try to get to the core of its meaning before pondering his purposes and aims:
The Pope commences his lecture with the recollection of his early years as professor of theology at the University of Bonn in 1959 where he used to meet with his Protestant friends in what were lively exchanges between the university’s two faculties; one for Catholic theology, the other Protestant. He then begins to address the issue of Faith and Reason, borrowing from a the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus’s words wherein he debated with a Persian Muslim scholar, based on the assumption that one of God’s traits is Reason, which would mean that Faith is tied to Reason – a reference to the mind’s freewill. Referring to an edition of a book by Professor Adel Theodore Khoury, a renowned Catholic theologian of Lebanese descent who had published the arguments of Manuel II and his discourse with Muslims, the Pope raises the notion of the nonviolent nature of the Divinity – attributing the rationale behind it to ancient Greek philosophers.
The word ‘Greek’ denotes one of two meanings: The Greek tradition in Christianity, which is the Orthodox religious tradition, Orthodoxy being the religion of Emperor Manuel II who was the one to conduct the arguments. But the Pope chose the second meaning of the term without any justification; the one that signifies the Ancient Greeks who had established the famous philosophic tradition that became known to us through the famous three philosophers that he mentions: Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. In this regard, I say that the Pope’s selection of the second meaning is subjective because the aforementioned philosophers were not Christian and are in no way related to Christ’s pacifist experience. In fact, the Orthodox religious tradition is against any violence practiced in the name of religion. He would have done better to have employed the first meaning of the term instead of ascribing the concept of nonviolence to Platonic influence! Undoubtedly, if Emperor Manuel II himself was alive to read the words of Pope Benedict, he would have laughed in astonishment because the notion of violence in the name of religion, introduced by the Catholic Church (Pope Urban II in 1095 A.D.) against the Islamic East, was only won using ‘Orthodox zeal’. Crusaders occupied Constantinople and took over for more than 50 years – all in the name of a violent Christ, not a peaceful or rational one!
The Pope continues by presenting a new interpretation of the Old Testament, the essence of which is that its translation into Greek made it more ‘civilized’ – thus avoiding the violent image of Yaweh in the Torah. The nonviolent Greek New Testament was brought by St. Paul who headed towards Macedonia (Greek Macedonia? The Ancient Greeks didn’t regard it as such and they considered Alexander the Macedonian who conquered Athens brutal). Another ‘Greek’ dimension was that Greek was the first known language in which the Bible became widespread – perhaps it was originally written in Aramaic, the language of Christ, or in Hebrew? But the oldest copies of the Bible are in Greek, dating back to 225 A.D. One of the legal manuscripts begins with the famous phrase, “In the beginning was the Word (Logos), and the Word was God.” By quoting that, the Pope unites the concept of Divinity with the Word (between the Word as ‘knowledge’, and ‘nous’, which is Mind and Reason). However, Platonic philosophy, knowledge and reason did not converge except in Macedonia at the hands of St. Paul. This is why Christianity didn’t evolve to become ‘civilized’ in the East where it first appeared, but rather in Europe. And thus emerged the Christian identity of Europe where both parties exchanged the making- and manufacturing- of European Christianity and Christian Europe! I believe this innovative interpretation of both Christianity and Europe would have pleased Sheikh Ibn Taymiya, the famous writer of the polemical book against Christianity titled, Correct Answers to Those Who Have Changed Christ’s Religion, in which he says: “The Romans never adopted Christianity (‘Roman’, in Arabic and Quranic terminology refers to the Byzantine Greeks), but Christianity was Roman-ised.” This unique interpretation would have also pleased former French President Giscard d’Estaing who headed a committee that set the now obsolete European Constitution. The Constitution’s introduction stated that European identity is deeply rooted in Christianity, and based on that, if Muslim Turkey were to join the European Union, it would ruin the eternal Christian identity beyond redemption. This is the present Pope’s point of view, an opinion that he stated three years ago in the midst of the debates on the Constitution. At that time, he was still Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the Vatican and was known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. The Turks believe this lack of love predates back to when he was Archbishop of Munich, when the female laborers’ dress code and veils used to astonish him!
After establishing a correlation between the Greek Mind, Christianity and Europe, the Pope moves on to a somewhat personal reading of theological history, and the image of God as is perceived in Christianity. The ‘original’ Catholic theology is the theology of Logos, or the theology of Faith and Reason (except for a rare few not worth mentioning, such as Dons Scotus). He mentions that among the main figures of this theology are St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. St. Augustine was indeed a Platonic Gnostic, however that’s not the case with Thomas Aquinas. Thomas Aquinas, who founded the scholastic ‘school’ theology for Catholicism, borrowed the theological admixture that al-Ghazali used against Ibn Rushd. In this particular combination, the Greeks (mainly Aristotle) were systematically incorporated through the creation of the Muslim ‘ilm al-kalam (literally the science of debate) – in relation to the rationale behind the image of God. Christian mysticism is Platonic, whereas the institutional theology, like ‘ilm al-kalam among the Asharites and Mutazalites, is based on Aristotelian logic. This might constitute the right basis with which to read the ‘rational image of God’ for the Pope who is originally a formidable professor of Catholic theology – which is also why it’s important to carefully follow his theological interpretations of the history of Medieval Christianity.
In Catholic and Orthodox Christianity there are two types of theology – as is the case in Islam and Judaism – however in Protestant theology, there is only one. The two theologies are, if it can be accurately said: the theology of mercy, care and benevolence, and the theology of infallibility and justice. These two notions are also found in Judaism and Islam, whereas the Protestant dogma only follows the theology of mercy, grace and selection, which can take on an extremist quality such as is sometimes present in Jewish theology; a point that will be raised later).
In other words, this means that the image of God (may He be exalted) among those who follow the theology of mercy and benevolence is one of mutual freedom in which God completely transcends the image of man, without any possible comparison or criteria in common, “God is unlike anything that ever crossed your mind.” But because of His mercy and compassion, He sent messages and chose to care for his creation; however he is under no obligation except for His own volition, which is all part of His will, ability and desire to do so. This is in accordance with His wisdom and benevolence, all fulfilled for a purpose unknown to us. As opposed to God’s absolute freedom, human beings have relative freedom in terms of choosing between faith and atheism, virtue and vice, and there are texts and teachings that reveal the two roads of Good and Evil, as well as the consequences of selecting either road. However, this theology has its share of capriciousness “in terms of Freewill and Predestination”, as well as the implied dependence: “You will remain in the realm of God’s care and mercy no matter what you do.”
As for the other theology, that of infallibility and justice, which we will name the theology of mutual obligation where God and man are free – but both committed to the obligations based on that. In this theology, it means that God is committed to what He chooses to be committed to (referred to by Mutazalites as ‘promise and threat’). Advocates of this theology assert that it is unfair that God would guide an individual to the right path and not another, nor is it fair that God would grant His mercy to the guilty, or that He wouldn’t reward anyone who adheres to the rites and teachings. God is committed to His promise as well as to His threat, and it is impossible for Him to lose that Divine attribute – in contradistinction to human beings who are the ones to create their deeds, which have nothing to do with Freewill and Predestination – and hence the full accountability of mankind.
Accordingly, faith grants grace, mercy and blessings from God to the advocates of the theology of mercy, as opposed to it being a right and duty among advocates of the theology of justice. Grace, compassion and caring have other dimensions among Jewish theologians and scholars – to the extent that they believe they are God’s chosen people, in terms of religion and land, not as individuals. Notions of choice and prioritization in selection also run strong among Protestants, but they are based on individual terms. Contrastingly, sometimes the theology of duty among Mutazalites, some Catholics, and Orthodox followers reaches the point of placing God within a rational mentality that centers around human beings when they say: God should do this and shouldn’t do that!
The idea of a glorified divine presence in the Abrahamic religions had imposed a set of common denominators despite discrepancies in the opinions of theologians. There must be a possibility of creating a relationship between the two parties: A divinity that is transcendent and unique on the one hand, and humans on the other. This is why the whims of Sufis, Kabbalists and Gnostics were never accepted by the institutional theology because they transcend all religious institutions, eliminating the concept of priesthood on the pretext that the unity of the universe, solutions or the direct link between God and man lies outside the legal channel of prophets, divine books, and in Christianity, against the embodiment of God himself! Thus, Muslim theologians stated the idea of measuring the ‘Absent’ against the ‘Observed’, and they were followed by Jewish and Catholic theologians and the Orthodox to some extent. Measuring the Absent ‘God’ against the Observed ‘human mind, it’s value and faculties’ would entail establishing a certain link between the Absolute and the Relative through God’s attributes Ability and Care (as is known among Asharites and Catholics), and what is referred to as His Kindness among Mutazalites, and other Jewish and Orthodox theologians who were influenced by them.
What is the aim behind this detailed elaboration? The aim is that the Pope speaks about the differences between the image of God among Christians and followers of other monotheistic religions – Islam in particular – because Judaism had surpassed Yahweh’s ‘accusation’ by also adopting the Greek rational heritage. This interpretation of the history of theology is not known except to the Pope and may not be said except by him. The mediating Catholic theology is based on the same foundation that had been identified by Muslim theologians and in which they admitted Catholics and Jews – and to a lesser extent Orthodox and Syriacs – because the latter two had known the Greek heritage and logic before Muslims. Catholicism, followed by Orthodoxy, escaped Platonism and adopted a semi-Aristotelian approach for fear of falling into the Gnosticism that the first Church Fathers fought against, and in which St. Augustine and others fell into and barely came out of. If the existing Church institution’s authority was not based on the State, and that which runs parallel to it; Catholicism in particular would have been yet another Gnostic religion like the Gnosticism of the Hellenic period. The Greek encounter with Platonic and Aristotelian theology is a common experience among monotheistic religions and is not limited to European Christians or even Catholics in particular, especially since they took it from the Muslims, or shared with it with them! Thus, Christian rationalism is limited and focused on the organizational and authoritative hierarchy, not on the academic theology that has remained in common between Islam, Christianity and Judaism – the theology of Moses Maimonides is Asharite inclined. However in recent years, several Mutazalite texts were discovered among Jewish groups in Baghdad, Egypt and Andalusia). So where did this private enlightened Christianity, which is accepted by Jews and rejected by Muslims, as mentioned by the Pope when he discusses God’s image, emerge from? Certainly not from Catholic theology, nor from the history of the Church, but rather from the humane European experience in the last four centuries which has become universal through the expression of man’s “natural right”. Based on that meaning, the image of human beings and the image of the world had changed, and accordingly, the image of God had changed for the Pope after the Vatican’s struggle against the Papal Authority in a counter reform that lasted for over three centuries! The modernity that was introduced by Protestants and some Jews is what renewed the Catholic Church’s efforts to address all these issues and enabled the rigid and faltering Catholic institution to enter and compete once again at the dawn of the 20th Century, taking advantage of the restructuring that was taking place by using the negative inhumanity of the radical humanitarians.
The Pope then continues to address modern issues, or the criticism of modernity before he reaches his deductions and conclusion. He believes that the main characteristic of religious thought during the past four centuries and up until the 20th Century, was and still is, the dehellenization of Christianity and divesting the theology and Christian thought of its Greek philosophical influences. This procedure has gone through three stages until the present day. The first stage was the “Protestant” Reformation era, which the Pope believes the purpose of was a return to faith in its pure and primordial form, as is originally found in the biblical Word and away from the philosophical explanations. It wasn’t only theologians who contributed to this stage, but also philosophers such as Emmanuel Kant who wanted to set thinking aside in order to make room for faith.
The second phase was one of liberal theology that lasted until the 20th Century, during which a number of senior theologians, such as Adolf von Harnak, followed on that process, basing it on Pascal’s argument in which he called upon differentiating between the God of philosophers and the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The Pope said that Harnak wanted to revive the passion of Jesus Christ’s first Revelation, which had sunk under the accretions of theology and Hellenic philosophy. The situation become more radical with the emergence of the Industrial Age, and later with the advent of technology, whereby theology was considered a science that was incorporated into ‘the science of history’ on one side, while measuring its accuracy and scientific nature (including other human sciences) against the accuracy of applied sciences. And because theology that is related to faith is not empirical and cannot be subject to experimentation, and thus the inquiry into the nature of God was practically expelled from the lively and evolving scientific field and religion was taught as an empirical science.
Next came the third stage of dehellenization, which is the contemporary stage in an age of cultural pluralism. At this stage, it was said that Christian Hellenism had been accomplished in earlier times under circumstances now rendered obsolete. Neo-Christians are therefore allowed to live out their own identities, circumstances and contexts as their Greek predecessors did before them. This way, they would be able to establish their own religion, which would be fitting to their own cultural traditions in an era of pluralism. The Pope believes this to be perverse and unreasonable. Hellenism for Christianity is not a borrowed cover that can be discarded; in fact, it had become part of the Christian faith itself. The Pope concludes his lecture on Faith and Reason by calling for a return to the philosophical mind and against confining the mind and its reasoning to the tangible outcomes of direct experiences and standards. He believes that this is not a denial of technology or the Enlightenment era that preceded it, but rather a building up on it. The link between Faith and Reason must be corrected through a mutual recognition and positive consideration of the historicity of the relationship between the different religions and traditions, especially Christianity. It is necessary to reflect upon the words of Emperor Manuel II, when he said: “Undertaking any unreasonable action is contrary to the nature of God.”
The Pope holds those who persisted in the dehellenization or the banning of the theology since the 16th Century responsible for what has become the state of religion now. He divides his accusation into three phases starting with the 16th Century; Protestants bear the responsibility for the first two phases, while secularists and pluralist experimentalists are responsible for the contemporary stage. Once again, this is a unique and idiosyncratic view of understanding the evolution of religious thought in Europe over the past four centuries. In reality, the problems related to religion that appeared since the 16th Century can be summarized into three main points: The first of which is the relationship between religion and the Church, and the relationship between the Church and the State. The second is the relationship of between Faith and Reason, and finally, the status of religion in human life. Protestant Reform, beginning in the 16th Century and after, raised the debate on the issue of the relationship between religion and salvation in relation to the ‘religious’ institution: i.e. the Catholic Church. This phase was preceded by various uprisings against the Church Authority since the 13th Century at the end of Crusader wars. To suppress these riots, the Papal Authority resorted to the king’s faithful armies, as well as the armies of the Vatican itself – topping it with the establishment of Inquisitions.
Therefore, the issue wasn’t primarily one of dehellenization, the question to be raised is: Is religion or ‘faith’ possible without the religious institution? And if so, what constitutes its authority? And what are its limits? Here the Pope equates between faith and the religious institution since he considers rebellion against the religious institution as one against religion and faith. This theory has been proven wrong. Protestantism, which had weakened the religious institution without weakening religion or belief, had won the struggle. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the papacy failed to put an end to the Protestant rebellion as it did with the other rebellions because the State was gradually separating from the Church. As a result, the Church was unable to mount Crusader wars abroad or enforce its control using the armies of Christian kings in Europe internally. Therefore, the question to be asked for the first stage should not be one about the nature of the theology, but rather about the importance of the “Catholic” institution to the survival of the Christian religion. The Church used the scholastic theology to impose its domination in the Christian world. It was quite natural that when such control falters that the theological construction that supports it or gives it legitimacy would be demolished.
As for the other question, it was posed in the 18th Century or the so-called Enlightenment era and was related to the relationship between Faith and Reason. There were rationalist atheists who believed that religion was fading and all that remained were individual and personal inclinations. This line of thought reached its culmination in the late 18th Century’s radical ideas of the French Revolution. However, new thinkers such as Kant, Hegel, Hobbes, Locke, Leibniz and Espinoza had their illusions about the possibility of the disappearance of religion or religious belief. Yet they believed that “rational theology”, or establishing one’s faith on Platonic or Aristotelian theological proof could no longer subsist. Thus, they returned to Ibn Rushd’s proposition, which scholars and theologians had set aside as was mentioned before, in the best interest of rational theologians such as al-Ghazali and Thomas Aquinas. Ibn Rushd spoke of two realities, one of faith and the other evidential. The first relates to the world of religion and faith, and the second relates to the world of the universe and corruption, or sense and experience. The Pope considers such a division as a marginalization of the religious question on the one hand, because he is still obsessed with the role of institutional theology – but on the other hand – he cannot view this stage as yet another stage that strips religion of its philosophical or intellectual weaponry. Indeed, Kant, Hegel and Espinoza were protecting deep religious faith from the exaggeration of radical enlighteners such as Hume, Feuerbach and Nietzsche, and the extremist ideas of Evangelists, not from the remaining members of the Catholic Church. Additionally, in the 19th Century there were feelings among senior scholars that scientific faith or faith via science (mathematics and natural sciences) had eliminated the need for a religion or belief wherein religion has but a minimal interest in ethical issues. A new vision of the world crystallized at the same time when Catholic scholars were still embroiled in defending the authority of the Church and religious faith.
But why is the Pope perturbed? He fears that the role of religion in European public life will diminish. However, the European experience with religion in recent centuries has been a private one rather than a global one. What is happening in the United States, Asia and Africa gives unequivocal evidence to that. In all continents, including some parts of Europe, there is an expansion in faith and religious uprising, not a decay of religion and faith. This is why, the solution he proposes, “the redefinition of Reason and its role”, doesn’t match the changing realities. It seems that he is still frustrated by what used to happen between the two wars, and by the Cold War era. Times have changed, and radical secularism is no longer the problem; the new non-institutional religions are. As such, fear is valid and justified despite grave doubts over the possibility of religious institutions for three divine religions succeeding and regaining their strength and pride. There is great suffering that comes in the aftermath of the revival of ideas and fundamentalism; both out of order and don’t require any institutional or disciplinary entities of any kind. The Catholic scholastic theology had totally collapsed by the 18th Century, as did the Orthodox Jewish religious institution after the mid-twentieth century, which was also the case with the Sunni Asharites. And the revival of ideas continued to massively grow unrestrained by any theology or al-kalam science – and that is the real challenge that faces all Abrahamic religions.
Pope John Paul II was aware of this matter and thus appointed Cardinal Ratzinger as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to rule over the Catholic Church with an iron fist so that it wouldn’t crack in an age of huge transformations. Since the early 1980s, Pope John Paul II directed his attention to the struggle against Communism in Eastern Europe. By the early 1990s, he had started his fight against totalitarianism and other despotic regimes, while advocating human freedom and friendship, combating poverty, injustice and human malaises, as well as addressing followers of other religions whom he regarded as allies and partners of faith and in the great fate of humanity. Pope John Paul II had sensed the pulse of history and participated in its making, whereas the current Pope wants to reshuffle his status in Europe, reiterating the same questions that have been raised for over a century. There is no doubt that the Catholic Church faces its biggest dilemma yet, not because of the attacks made by the Neo-Evangelicals and the old Evangelical followers, but because of the increased aggravation in issues that have not been resolved for three decades. These are new worlds for mankind, worlds that cannot resort to Hellenic theologies or to the proposed reconciliation between Faith and Reason.
It’s clear from the detailed review of Pope Benedict XVI’s lecture and its context that it has nothing to do with Islam, as seemed to me at first glance, and that it centers around the restoration of Europe to Christianity, and of Christianity to Europe. Regardless of its validity, the possibility of its implementation and the methods for acknowledging it, the same project has many close ties to Islam. It may seem that these relationships are not direct, yet the truth is very different. In order to not subject what I seek to highlight about the close relationship between the Pope’s lecture and Islam to different interpretations, I will begin by translating the introductory paragraph, which mentions Islam in the lecture. The Pope said:
“I read the edition by Professor Theodore Khoury (University of Münster) of part of the dialogue carried on – perhaps in 1391 in the winter barracks near Ankara – by the erudite emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian in the subject of Christianity and Islam, an the truth of both. It was presumably the emperor himself who set down this dialogue, during the siege of Constantinople between 1394 and 1402; and this would explain why his arguments are given in greater detail than those of his Persian interlocutor. The dialogue ranges widely over the structures of faith contained in the bible and in the Quran, and deals especially with image of God and of man, while necessarily returning repeatedly to the relationship between – as they were called the three ‘Laws’ or ‘rules of life’: the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Quran. In this lecture I would like to discuss only one point – itself rather marginal to the dialogue itself – which, in the context of the issue of ‘Faith and Reason’, I found interesting and which can serve as the starting-point for my reflections on this issue.
In the seventh conversation edited by Professor Khoury, the emperor touches on the theme of the jihad (holy war). The emperor must have known that Surah 2, 256 reads: ‘There is no compulsion in religion’ (al-Baqara / the Cow). It is one of the suras of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under threat.
But naturally the emperor also knew the instructions, developed later and recorded in the Quran, concerning holy war. Without descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the ‘Book’ and the ‘infidels,’ he 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 decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature. The editor, Theodore Khoury, observes: ‘For the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-evident. 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.”
I refer to this long quotation in order to make clear the context in which the Pope deals with Islam and the Prophet Mohamed (PBUH). Having said that, he immediately shifts the attention to Faith and Reason, and how the reconciliation between Christianity and modernity was achieved in Europe.
I believe there are four matters worthy of consideration and debate:
•The context and conditions in which the alleged discourse between the Byzantine Emperor and the Persian scholar took place.
•The topics included in the dialogue or debate.
•Theodore Khoury and the Pope’s understanding of the debated issues, and the repercussions of their understanding.
•Finally, the significance of the Pope’s citation under these particular circumstances.
In terms of the context and circumstances in which this debate or dialogue took place between the emperor and the Persian Muslim scholar, the matter is clear. After the acquisition of Anatolia in the early 14th Century, the Ottomans began to successively take over Byzantine territories until they acquired all of Minor Asia and some countries in Eastern Europe, the Balkans, the Italian islands – and everything else except for Constantinople which could not be captured despite being repeatedly besieged. Manuel II, (whose epithet Paleologus means “book scholar”), wasn’t a famous statesman but he was educated in the Greek and Church cultures, and was familiar with Islam. During Sultan Beyezid I’s second long siege of Constantinople and Ankara (1391-1402 A.D.), the emperor had the opportunity to meet with a lot of Muslims who were messengers of the Sultan, as well as prisoners and mediators. Therefore, the possibility of the aforementioned debate taking place between him and a Persian Muslim scholar is valid. However, the notion that Islam spread by means of the sword is not a new Byzantine accusation against Islam. It started in the eighth and ninth centuries and includes four major claims: Islam is a religion that relies on using force to spread its faith; Islam is a religion that is steeped in sensual pleasures, Islam has a tendency towards the ‘obligatory’, and Islam has stolen the Christian faith, deforming and overturning it. It was within the emperor’s capacity, if he wanted to be fair, to let it be known beforehand that his struggle against the Ottomans and the conflict between the Arabs and Byzantines had never really been about spreading religion, but rather about political and military interests with the intention of achieving control and conquests. He undoubtedly knew that this wasn’t derived from Quran, but actually from the faulty application of its practices. Even during the Crusades, the majority of the population in the Levant and Egypt were still Christian, Orthodox, or Syriac despite being under Islamic control for over six centuries. The same applies to Minor Asia’s population during the emperor’s era where the majority were still mainly Christians. In reality, he wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference between military conquests and the spreading of Islam when he was under siege listening to the proclamations of jihad. Upon his release, he continued to encourage the struggle against Muslims in his debates because Timur Lenk had attacked the Ottomans on his way back from the Levant, and from Central Asia. Matters concluded with the defeat of Sultan Bayezid and his capture by Timur Lenk, which lead to the Byzantine Empire’s expansion that lasted for 50 years until the fall of Constantinople at the hands of the Ottomans in 1453.
Nevertheless, the greatest danger in Manuel II’s debates against Islam was were his correlations between violence in the name of religion, and violence and “the image of God” in Islam. To Manuel II, violence is against reason, and God represents reason or Logos according to the Platonic concept that he, along with Adel Khoury and the Pope, consider the essence of the Christian religion. In fact, there are three errors or flaws in this matter: using violence to spread religion was a familiar concept in the Byzantine religious heritage (towards the Bulgarian, Slavic and other Mediterranean people). The second flaw is that war does not figure into the Islamic image of God (may He be exalted). The final flaw is related to Pope Benedict; when one refers to excerpts, it is either to affirm or refute them. Since he doesn’t refute theses citations at the end of the debate could mean that Pope Benedict regards Islamic discourse as a violent one that doesn’t fit into his speech about the reconciliation between the Christian religion and modernity in Europe, and the image of God vs. violent jihad.
The emperor’s inability to understand the matter when he was besieged by Muslim armies at the beginning of the 15th Century is not much better than Professor Khoury and Pope Benedict’s understanding in early 21st Century. Three topics are worth raising in this context: the image of God in Islam, the meaning of the concept of jihad in the past and the present, and the image of jihad and Islam in the contemporary global climate. These three topics are where Khoury and the Pope missed the point. The Divine Being who is graceful, transcendent and infallible in the Islamic al-kalam theology refers to absolutism, not irrationality. This is a well-known fact not only in al-kalam theology but also in Jewish and Christian doctrines, with all their different currents and trends. Both the Platonic and Aristotelian heritage was used among Christian theologians to affirm the concept of transcendence as a result of the Old Testament’s concrete image of a violent God, and because of the Divine embodiment of the Christian God. Professor Khoury and the Pope are two senior scholars in Christian and Jewish theology; the former has been teaching Islamic studies for 40 years and has written scores of books on the image of Islam, both old and new. It is therefore surprising that he would use a quote from Ibn Hazm, which is delivered by Arnaldez to demonstrate “The strangeness” of the Islamic notion of God’s infallibility when such a concept is unknown to Orthodox Christians, especially Catholics! A senior interpreter of the Quran, how could he not understand the relationship between the Quranic verses: “He (God) is not to be questioned about what He does, but they (humans) are to be questioned”, and the verse “He had deemed Himself the compassionate”?! Also, how is it possible to link violent “jihad” to the image of God, which is a purely “Platonic” concept to Mutazalites in particular, “a Being without attributes”, and whom Professor Khoury is so fond of? Seeing as it revolves around the Quran, where is the issue of jihad ever mentioned as gratuitous and not to counteract aggression? Also, where does it say that jihad is used to spread the Islamic religion or impose its embrace on the helpless? According to Theodore Khoury, the Pope justifies the emperor’s indictment of Muslims because they spread religion through violence, despite of the Quranic verse that contradicts this claim, saying that the verse was revealed during the days when the Prophet (PBUH) was weak and that Islam later evolved to change this order, as is recorded in the Quran. (Doesn’t the established Professor Khoury, interpreter of the Quran, know that the verse that denounces coercion is mentioned in the chapter of al-Baqara (The Cow), a sura that is of the later-revealed ones (625 A.D.) – revealed precisely at the moment when the Prophet (PBUH) witnessed his most triumphant days in Medina?!) Where, then, are the late verses that claim the spread of Islam by sword? I understand that Manuel II considered his debates as a form of defending himself and his empire against Muslim attacks that weren’t undertaken in the name of religion – but what I don’t understand are the justifications put forth by the two theologians, Khoury and Benedict, in the 21st Century!
Let’s mention the circumstances and implications: Since the early 1990s, the “Clash of Civilizations” thesis has produced a charged outcome. According to Samuel Huntington and others: Islam has a number of bloody borders or frontiers. After September 11th, 2001, Islam became a global problem on the pretext that it has a strong worldwide fundamentalist current that advocates violence “in the name of jihad”. More recently, President George W. Bush repeatedly used the term, “Islamic fascism” instead of “Islamic jihad”. Professor Khoury had embarked on rectifying the perception of Islam in Europe and the West over the past four decades, but more specifically, within the Catholic Church. Late Pope John Paul II was renowned for his knowledge in this matter. When he condemned America’s wars in Iraq, Palestine and Afghanistan, he insisted on debating with Muslims, believing that the nature of relations between Christians and Muslims would be what decides the fate of the world. However, it seems that the current Pope does not share that same level of awareness. That is not to say that he is hostile to Islam, but because he adopts a limited view that aims at restoring Europe and fortifying it with Christian faith. Pope Benedict makes Judaism neutral by including it in the Greek and Christian heritage, he then shifts his attention to winning over the Protestants and secularists into his alienated or introverted outlook. But Christianity is a major and widespread global religion, the number of Christians, even Catholics, is larger outside of Europe than inside it – as is widely known. Thus his isolating ideology will only add to the Catholic Christians’ problems, both inside and outside of Europe. The Vatican’s regressive project is grandly represented in what is the Pope’s attempt to change the name of the “Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue” to the “Council for Cultural Dialogue”. This is considered a regression after the “Second Vatican Council” (1962-1965), which not only recognized the Abrahamic religions, but also had a partnership with them, as well as an introductory dialogue with other religions. The famous magazine, Islamo-Christiana, is no longer published by the Vatican. All of these events do not seem promising, nor do they point towards a future of hopefulness, openness or dialogue. The problem is not in the Pope’s negative vision of Islam but in the regression, isolation, the apprehension of the other, and in incorporating this grand global religion into an illusory project – that of Christian Europe. As opposed to what Pope John Paul II tried to do, which was to establish a new world based on values of freedom, justice and peace to fight poverty, hunger, social inequality and the breakdown of family structure.
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Perhaps the Pope’s presentation of his lecture in this sequence may have been unintentional – it is ostensibly unrelated to Islam and does not debate for, or against it. However, his introduction to the lecture in this manner cannot be a coincidence. Also, the global attitude towards Arabs, Muslims and the vision of Islam is an alarming one that stirs fear and worry. The frenzy and the riots against Salman Rushdie, the Danish cartoons, or Taslima Nasreen etc., does not do us good. But the issue is not about these scenes or a speech against Islam only, it is also about the “conquests” of September 11th in New York and Washington, in addition to the attacks in Bali, Madrid, London, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Palestine, Darfur, Somalia and Damascus – and I cannot even begin to recall where else. As I said earlier, the world believes we are major problem; a problem that cannot be solved using insults and televised responses, nor can it be resolved with further acts of violence and counter-violence. We constitute one fifth of the world’s population, and inasmuch as we have rights we also have responsibilities. We do not take our rights, but we do not assume our responsibilities either. We don’t want to be afraid of the world just as we don’t want to scare them. And inasmuch as there is no patience reserved for the endless devastation in Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon, and various other places – there is also no patience for this increasing isolation from the world and its policies, the world and its cultures, and the world and its religions.
God will forever be in control.
* Dr. Radwan Al-Sayyid is a prominent Lebanese intellectual and a professor of Islamic studies at the Lebanese University.