A Muslim Response to The Pope: For They Know Exactly What They Do
By Imam Zaid Shakir
In The Name of God, The Merciful, The Mercy Giving
On September 12, 2006 in Regensburg, Germany, Pope Benedict XVI uttered the following sentence, referencing a 14th century Byzantine emperor, Manuel II Paleologus: “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 that he preached.”  There have been many explanations of what the Pope meant by this comment, and varying theories proposed as to what his motivation was. It is my contention that the Pope’s comments signaled a tacit endorsement of the evolving anti-Muslim agenda of the radical right.
To begin with, the Pontiff uttered these words in the context of an increasingly polarized world where religious sentiments are being manipulated by demagogues of various stripes to advance their nefarious agendas. That polarization is epitomized by the Danish cartoon controversy, in which offensive caricatures allegedly portraying the Prophet Muhammad, peace upon him, touched off a firestorm of protest throughout the Muslim world. At the height of that controversy, Pope Benedict uttered the following conciliatory remarks:
In the international context we are living at present, the Catholic Church continues convinced that, to foster peace and understanding between peoples and men it is necessary and urgent that religions and their symbols be respected…
Believers should not be the object of provocations that wound their lives and religious sentiments…
The only path that can lead to peace and fraternity is respect for the convictions and religious practices of others. 
Being only six months removed from that crisis, it would be difficult to accept that the Pope did not realize the sensitivity of his quoting the emperor’s remarks. This is especially true in light of the above pronouncements. Either the Pope was not being sincere when he made his remarks about religious tolerance and understanding, or he subsequently abandoned the principles they articulate.
It is not coincidental that the Pope’s remarks occurred a day after America commemorated the fifth anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001. That anniversary is being seized upon by the radical right to galvanize popular support for the so-called “war on terror.” It is also not coincidental that the underlying tone of the Pope’s remarks dealt with an interpretation of Islam that implies it is a religion of irrational violence. Here the Pope went even further than Mr. Bush, who confined his indictments of violence-prone Muslims to the “Islamic fascists.”  In lockstep with the radical right in America and Europe, he implied that Islam itself is an irrational faith, inspired by an irrational god, and instituted by an irrational prophet, who urges the spread of the faith by violence, the epitome of irrationality, as, in the words of the “erudite” emperor, Manuel II:
“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.” 
Not only is Islam, as implied in the argument the Pope references, irrational, it is also inherently evil, as it brought “things only evil and inhuman.” The charges levied against Islam in the emperor’s statements are the same as those found in the literature and pronouncements associated with the agenda of the radical right. It is on this basis that one may reach the conclusion that the statement was marshaled by the Pope to signal his endorsement of that agenda.
The Pope could have merely stated in the context of his talk that he believes Islam contains some irrational teachings. In today’s political climate he might have been condemned in some quarters for not going far enough. If as he states, the decisive statement in the discussion he references is that “not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature,” he could have merely stated that and spared us the ensuing crisis. Such a statement would have been far more consistent with his call to respect the religions and symbols of others. Furthermore, his argument would not have been weakened in any way.
Instead, he scoured the writings of a rival sect to find a statement that categorically condemns Islam as irrational and violent. The Pope is a trained philosopher, logician, and diplomat and as such, he knows exactly what the implications of the word “only” are in the emperor’s statement: “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman…”
“Only” renders the statement categorical, meaning there is nothing good to be found in Islam. As he develops his argument, he also implies there is nothing rational in Islam. Hence, there is no room to negotiate with Muslims, there are no lofty or shared principles or values to appeal to, there is only evil. In a world where good is the desirable ideal, evil must be eliminated. The Pope did not carry his argument to this logical conclusion, but others have done so. Writing on the website of the prominent African American conservative and recent U.S. Senate candidate, Alan Keyes, Todd Warner Huston states:
So, we feel the only true solution is that millions of Muslims must be killed and the sooner the better it will be for the whole world. Not because Jews are somehow perfect or that Muslims just plain “need killing,” but because Islam is so patently evil and needs to be defeated! 
It is indeed frightening to believe that the Pope would be seeking to legitimize such sentiments. Perhaps he is not, and inadvertently overlooked the implications of his words. However, this is not the first sign of his endorsing American and European radical right-wing ideology. Since assuming the papacy he has stated to a group of European Imams that the only issue he wished to discus with them was “Islamic terrorism.” He has opined that “Islam is not simply a denomination that can be included in the free realm of a pluralistic society.” That it cannot be “assimilated,” nor does it make any “sort of concession to inculturation.”  Again, such allegations fill the literature of the radical right.
Many of the Pope’s actions are consistent with his words in this regard. Since assuming control at the Vatican he has demoted Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, an individual known for his open encouragement of dialogue and good relations with Muslims, and he has distanced himself from Cardinal Angelo Sodano, distinguished by his pro-Palestinian views. An individual believed to be one of his closest advisors, Piersandro Vanzan, has co-authored an article in which he states that moderate Islam does not exist. That article, The Islamic Question, was published in a journal, Studium, which has a statutory relationship with the Holy See. 
In addition to his comment about moderate Islam, Vanzan makes other statements that are far graver in their implications, and demonstrate just how close official Vatican views are coming to reflect those of the radical right. For example, Vanzan equates Ayman Zawahiri to Hitler. This scare tactic, which President George W. Bush has recently begun to employ, was instituted by the radical right as part of its effort to overstate the “Islamic” threat. Analyzing Zawahiri’s political program, Vanzan states:
This pan-Islamist program might make some smirk, just as many smirked at Hitler before his political ascent. But this is a real program, which is being carried out according to a clear plan, and although it is working slowly, it is producing results. 
Benedict has also granted a rare private audience to the controversial anti-immigration feminist writer, Oriana Fallaci, who in her book, The Rage and The Pride, describes Muslims as “retrograde bigots who, instead of contributing to the improvement of humanity, salaam and squawk prayers five times a day.”  Fallaci, who recently passed away, has been indicted in Italy on charges of inciting religious hatred in an essay ironically entitled, The Strength of Reason.  It would be hoped that she would have given the Pontiff counsel more enlightened than the alarmist diatribe she offered his predecessor, Pope John Paul II. After lauding his role in the collapse of the Soviet Union she comments:
And after such a victory you wink at individuals who are worse than Stalin, you flirt with the same ones who still would like to build mosques inside the Vatican? Most Holy Father…In all respect, you remind me of the German bankers who in the 1930s, hoping to save themselves, lent money to Hitler. And who a few years later ended up in his crematory ovens. 
It is discouraging to think that in her counsel to John Paul’s successor, she may well have been preaching to the choir.
Another more subtle of the Pope’s quotations from the emperor’s controversial statements suggests that the Pontiff is more interested in advancing an ideological position than in meticulous scholarship. To strengthen his suggestion that Islam was “spread by the sword,” that expression itself having its own pejorative history, the Pope dismisses the Qur’anic verse that states, There is no compulsion in religion. (2:256)” He blithely does so by referencing “experts” who opine that “this is one of the surahs of the early period, when Mohammed was powerless and under threat.”  Apparently, the Pope fails to grasp the oxymoronic nature of his assertion, for if the Prophet, peace upon him, were “powerless and under threat,” how could he possess the ability to coerce anyone to believe? Hence, why would the verse have to be revealed at that particular time? It is well-established that this Qur’anic verse (2:256) is from the sura al-Baqara (the Cow), which was actually revealed during the later Madinan period when the Prophet, upon him be peace, had established his power base.  Numerous narrations support its literal meaning, specifically, that no one can be forced to accept Islam.
Like Vanzan when he says that there is “no moderate Islam,” the Pope, wittingly or unwittingly, strips Islam of all nuances. This black and white caricature can then be presented as the foil against which the virtues of God’s reasonable religion of love can be extolled. The reality of the situation is that the Qur’an is a highly nuanced scripture. In it God orders man to fight, not irrationally, but in defense of the poor and oppressed (4:75), to defend against expulsion and unjust occupation (22:39), or in self defense (2:190). However, there are other verses from the same period, such as the one the Pope dismisses, that forbid forced conversion (2:256), urge peace (8:61), reconciliation (49:8-9), and respect and amicable treatment of the non-Muslim “other” (60:8). All of these verses were revealed long after the Prophet, peace upon him, was “still powerless and under threat.”
These verses create a tension that urges human beings to apply their intellect to resolve. This is exactly what Muslims have been doing throughout their history. As a result, Islam is not the black and white, un-nuanced phenomenon many of its contemporary critics wish it to be. It is as complex and involved as the lives and times of the vast array of humans who have lived it in varying societal contexts. To present a brief example, relevant to our discussion, the only true “Jihad” state in Muslim history, the Umayyad dynasty, was essentially non-proselytizing. On the other hand, the most successful periods of proselytizing in Islamic history have not been accompanied by armed campaigns. These and similar historical realities defy simple explanation by a crude allegation that Islam was spread by the sword.
There are other aspects of the quotes chosen by the Pope to make his point that should cause one to ask, “Why this particular quote, and why now?” Specifically, the emperor’s interlocutor, representative of the “irrational” Muslims, is a Persian, in our days known as an Iranian. It is interesting to note that the argument made by the radical right for the exceptional treatment of Iran, in terms of efforts to halt their nuclear program, is that they are irrational Muslims, and as such cannot be trusted with technology that might lead to the development of a nuclear weapon. Is the Pope subtly supporting that opposition? It would not be surprising if this is how the Iranians see it.
Whatever message he may be sending, wittingly or unwittingly, the very nature of the “conversation” between the emperor and his Persian interlocutor, as the Pope presents it, reflects the reality of today’s big power politics. It is a one-way affair, a monologue of civilizations. The emperor lectures, scolds, and pontificates, while the Persian listens. We are given no clue as to the beliefs, principles, or arguments of the Emperor’s interlocutor. Of course, being an “irrational” Muslim, one would not anticipate him possessing any viable arguments, certainly none worthy of quoting in such an “enlightened” discourse.
It should not be surprising that the Turks are upset by the Pontiff’s utilization of the passage in question. Benedict is a vocal opponent of Turkey’s entrance into the European Union on the grounds that her entrance would violate the essentially Christian nature of Europe. Now, on the eve of his scheduled visit to Turkey this November, Benedict uses the emperor’s remarks to subtly remind the Turk’s that their Muslim country was once the heart of Byzantium, and that Istanbul, the seat of Ottoman Muslim authority, was once known as Constantinople. It would be a stretch of the imagination to view this as an accidental oversight by the ambassador of the world’s largest Christian church.
Let us briefly examine the Pontiff’s argument. For Benedict, the origin of Muslim irrationality is what he sees as the Muslim belief in the absolutely transcendent nature of God. The Pope never bothers to examine the relationship between God’s transcendent nature and divine or human reason in the Islamic tradition, even in a cursory fashion. Once again we get a caricature, embodied in his allegation that: “(The great Muslim scholar) 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” In the context of the argument the Pope proceeds to develop, Ibn Hazm’s statement is indeed frightening. It implies that neither God’s commandments, nor the actions of such a religion’s adherents could ever be governed by rational parameters. Hence, such a religion has no basis for an objective moral system.
However, even if we accept the quote, attributed to Ibn Hazm, as meaning what Benedict implies that it does, we would have to ask if it captures the full range of Muslim views concerning the relationship between God and ration throughout the lengthy history of the Muslim people? Of course, it does not. The sad reality of such simplistic caricaturing is that it not only neglects the deep influence of Greek philosophy on Muslim philosophy and theology, it also masks the reality of the deep impact that Muslim philosophy and theology would have on Christian thinking during the Middle Ages. The Pope would apparently be quick to condemn that influence, for it would work to dehellenize Christianity, in his view, limiting our knowledge of God to our knowledge of his “voluntas ordinate.”
The influence of Greek thought on Muslim philosophy is so deep that the dominant, classical Islamic philosophical school is usually referred to as Islamic Neo-Platonism. Reason was an integral part of that school. It saw God, or the First Principle, as transcendent, a position not unknown among many Greek philosophers, and the role of reason was undeniable as “the instrument of God in his creation, and the locus of the forms of things, as well as the source of the illumination of the human mind; […]” 
In the evolution of Islamic theology, the strict rationalism of the Mu’tazilite school would eventually yield to the more guarded approach of the Ash’aris and Maturidis. These latter schools, which would assume the standard of Islamic orthodoxy, were predicated on the systematic application of reason to resolve a wide array of theological problems. The problem for the orthodox critics of rational philosophy, and the excesses of rational theology, was not ration itself, but the assertion of some Muslim philosophers and theologians that God’s will was bound up with human rationality –a view the Pope endorses in his argument.
This assertion, made by the Pope, could easily lead to what Dr. Sherman Jackson refers to as “the new anthropomorphism.”  This term describes a situation where we Lord ourselves over God by informing Him of what His religion is. For the Pope the danger lies in identifying God’s will, nay God himself, with anything we may determine to be rational. Here the new anthropomorphism involves lording ourselves over God by placing our ration as the standard that determines the parameters of His power and the nature of His religion.
Just as Ibn Hazm’s formulation creates a deep philosophical dilemma for the small minority of Muslim theologians who adopt his view, Benedict’s formulation creates a deep philosophical dilemma for Christian theologians who adopt his. Specifically, it leaves them on a very shaky philosophical ground when trying to address the problem of the existence of evil. Avoiding the danger inherent in both positions was at the heart of the work undertaken by orthodox Muslim theologians, and it informed their conclusions. For them a balance had to be struck between human rationality and the independent power of God. To elevate human rationality to equal or surpass God would have been clear idolatry, an unimaginable leap for a Muslim.
Benedict makes that leap by identifying rationality, or logos, with the very essence of God. As he words it, “In the beginning was logos, and the logos is God.” Based on this formulation we can conclude, implicitly, “In the beginning was reason and reason is God.” To Benedict this is a valid interpretation because as he states “Logos means both reason and word.” While this is true linguistically, in the jargon of the Church, historically, the word and not reason “is God.” Benedict’s is a revisionist interpretation.
However, like most revisionist interpretations of established doctrine, this one breaks down when we consider its implications. In this case, by way of example, such an interpretation would lead us to accept that John 1:14 could be legitimately rendered, “And reason became flesh and dwelt among us.” Such an absurdity is the inevitable fruit of an over intellectualized approach to faith, an approach shunned by Jesus himself. However, that approach is begged by the rationalism that the Enlightenment restored by bringing reason to the fore of Western thinking.
However, reason is a two-edged sword. This is implicit in Benedict’s lecture. He situates the rebirth of the Church in the restoration of reason ushered in by the Enlightenment. However, the very forces working against that rational restoration, two of which he identifies as the second and third stages of the Church’s dehellenization, are forces that are also rooted in the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment gives, and it takes away.
Similarly, Benedict’s application of Enlightenment rationalism leads him to conclude that reason is the ultimate truth. However, Nietzsche, starting from the same rationalist point of departure, argued that rationalism can discover no universal values or ultimate truths. Hence, while the Pope uses rationalism to proclaim to an increasingly secular Europe that God yet lives, Nietzsche’s rationalism was one of the greatest catalysts in that secularizing process, and he announced that God is dead. There are those who argue that the rationalism of Nietzsche found its ultimate expression in the fascist ideology of Nazi Germany. We would hope that the rationalism of the Pope does not contribute to a similar end.
Imam Zaid Shakir
5 Ramadan 1427
 link link link link link For a summary of these and related quotes, see Abdal Hakim Murad, “Benedict XVI and Islam: the First Year,” link link Op. cit.
 Oriania Fallaci, The Rage and The Pride (New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 2002), 85.
 Ibid., p. 83.
 The list of Muslim exegetes who affirm that Qur’an 2:256 is a latter Madinan Chapter is exhaustive. I mention here a representative sample. Imam Muhammad ‘Ali Ash-Shawkani, Fath al-Qadir (Beirut: ‘Alam al-Kutub, nd), 1:274-275; Imam Ibn Kathir, Tafsir al-Qur’an al-‘Adhim (Sidon, Beirut: al-Maktaba al-‘Asriyya, 1996/1416), 272-273; Imam Abu Muhammad al-Husayn al-Baghawi, Ma’alam at-Tanzil (Beirut: Dar al-Ma’rifa, 1986/1407), 1:240; Imam Abu ‘Abdullah Muhammad al-Qurtubi, Al-Jami’ li Ahkam al-Qur’an (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 19/14), 3:280; Imam Abu Bakr Muhammad bin al-‘Arabi, Ahkam al-Qur’an (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, nd), 1:310; Imam Abu Su’ud Muhammad bin Muhammad al-Hanafi, Tafsir Abu Su’ud (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyya, 1999/1419), 1:297; Imam Jalal ad-Din as-Suyuti, Ad-Durr al-Manthur (Beirut: Dar Ihya at-Turath al-‘Arabi, 2001/1421), 2:20; Imam Isma’il al-Burusawi, Tafsir Ruh al-Bayan (Beirut: Dar Ihya at-Turath al-‘Arabi, 2001.1421), 1:499; Imam as-Suyuti, Lubab an-Nuqul (Beirut: Dar al-Ma’rifa, 1997/1418), 53-54. Imam Abu Ja’far Muhammad bin Jarir at-Tabari, Jami’ al-Bayan fi Ta’wil al-Qur’an (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyya, 1997/1418), 3:15-18.
 Majid Fakhri, A History of Islamic Philosophy (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1983), 31.
 Sherman Jackson, Islam and the Blackamerican: Looking Towards the Third Resurrection (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press), 191.