In the Name of God, Merciful, Compassionate. Blessed are all the Prophets of God and all their true and righteous followers. Blessed is the last and the seal of all Prophets and all Prophecy: Muhammad. Blessed are his kin, companions, and followers. Peace upon those who follow righteousness and divine guidance.
The Pontiff of the Catholic Church of Christianity, Benedict XVI, delivered a lecture titled “Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections” at the University of Regensburg (September 12th, 2006).
The Pontiff’s lecture gave rise to a deep and painful rupture in Catholic – Muslim relations on many fronts: diplomatic, political, and, most intensely, popular. The superficial media coverage of the lecture, and the intensity of popular reactions to that coverage, have largely prevented clear-headed considerations and critiques of its contents. This paper strives to conduct a thorough study of the lecture.
It is hoped that a balanced and fair consideration of the lecture can prepare for an urgently needed theological and philosophical dialogue between Muslim and Catholic scholars, including the Catholic Pontiff himself. Such a dialogue is urgently needed in order to repair the damage in Catholic – Muslim relations, and to heal fresh wounds that have compounded the pains of an already tarnished and pained world.
Benedict’s paper is a complex work that has to be engaged at various levels and from various angles: theological, philosophical, and political. It is hoped that this paper will at least start a process of further Muslim reflections on it and discussion of it.
In order not to risk distorting, through paraphrasing, the meaning of Benedict XVI’s Lecture, I shall quote heavily from the official Vatican translation posted on the Vatican Website and copyrighted by Libreria Editrice Vaticana.
In order to make one’s presuppositions and tools clear from the outset, it is important to point out that the author of this paper is a devout Sunni Muslim theologian of the Ash’arite school, Maliki in jurisprudential tendency, and Shadhili/Rif’ai in spiritual leanings. The author is deeply committed to the possibility of fruitful philosophical discussions on the basis of our common humanity, and to the possibility of nourishing inter-religious dialogue on the basis of our common belief in the One True God. These commitments translated into several years of philosophical and inter-religious study and practice.
It is important to appreciate that Benedict XVI is speaking, at least to some extent, as a former Professor who is coming back to his beloved University to speak, once again, as a Professor. Of course, the discourse of a person, and its reception, depends a great deal under which aspect he happens to make the discourse. Different discourses are associated with different normative standards and are to be judged according to the standards appropriate to them.
It is one thing to consider the lecture as that of Joseph Ratzinger qua Benedict XVI, Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church, and World-Leader of all Catholics. It is another to consider the lecture as that of Joseph Ratzinger qua German Professor of Theology. The nostalgic tone of the opening passages of the lecture, and the reference to earlier lectures of the 1950’s, make it clear that Ratzinger is, to some extent, speaking, once again, as German Theology Professor. However, Ratzinger having been ‘created anew’ as Pope Benedict XVI, and noting the ecclesiastical garb in which he gave the lecture, it is only natural that, despite the charming nostalgia, receivers of the lecture can not simply suspend the ecclesiastical role of Ratzinger.
It is inevitable, therefore, that the lecture is received as that of a Roman Catholic Pope, and not just that of a University Professor. The Vatican clearly assumes this by posting the lecture as that of the “Holy Father” and as part of an “Apostolic Journey”.
As the Roman Philosopher Cicero and the British Philosopher Bradley both point out, one’s duties depend a great deal upon one’s position or station. It is important to note that as Professor Ratzinger was speaking in his former University, Pope Benedict XVI was very much present to his listeners.
In a cruel world full of wars and strife, much of which is between Christians and Muslims (under whichever flag or tag they happen to fight), it is extremely important that religious leaders of all religions speak and act responsibly. The gravity of responsibility is in direct correlation with the importance of the religious office from which one speaks. There are all sorts of university professors who say all sorts of unpleasant things about Islam and Muslims. They are often simply, and rightly, ignored. The lecture of Professor Ratzinger was very much that of Pope Benedict XVI. This is why it can not be ignored and must be engaged at all possible levels.
It is also important for Muslims, in the spirit of fairness dear to Islam, to appreciate and support whatever positive aspects are there in the lecture. One such aspect is the very important discourse, which is unfortunately relegated to the end of Benedict XVI’s Lecture, on the importance of deepening and widening the notion of Western Reason so as to include and accommodate the contribution that revelatory religiosity can make. The anti-Positivist critique of common Western University understandings of Reason can be readily appreciated and accepted by many Muslims. Of course, such a critique is not original in that it follows from the anti-Positivist developments of the Philosophy of Science since at least Karl Popper and his students wrote their important works. Nevertheless, the use of such anti-Positivist discourse for making way for revelatory discourse is fruitful for all.
Had Benedict XVI started with his last passages and developed them further, and had he appreciated the historical commitment of Islam, throughout the ages, to reasonableness and proper discussion, we would have had an uplifting discourse conducive to co-living and peaceful Christian-Muslim co-resistance to the pretensions of irreverent scientistic Reason. Islam can actually be Christianity’s best ally against the arrogant pretensions of scientistic positivism, and for a deeper and more spiritual Reason. Alas, that is not what Benedict XVI actually did. Let us look at how he actually did start and then follow the Lecture section by section, quoting important sections as we go along.
Benedict XVI begins his lecture, nicely enough, with reminiscences on his time at the University of Bonn in 1959 where “We would meet before and after lessons in the rooms of the teaching staff. There was a lively exchange with historians, philosophers, philologists and, naturally, between the two theological faculties.”
It is clear that Benedict XVI is very much disposed towards, and cherishes, historical, philosophical, philological, and theological discussions. It is important that he is engaged at all these levels. From the contents of the lecture, it is very clear that Benedict XVI can do with more meaningful discussion with serious Muslim scholars.
There is no doubt that he is very much interested in Islam and that he takes it very seriously. However, the study materials and sessions he engages with seem to be of a very particular and narrow type. Being a Catholic scholar who respects specialization, Benedict XVI seems to heavily rely on the works of Catholic Orientalists some of whom are not particularly sympathetic to Islam.
Late last year, Benedict XVI devoted the annual retreat that he usually has with his former doctoral students to the study of the Concept of God in Islam. Very little is known about the contents of this retreat, but glimpses of what it must have been like can be gathered from two, sometimes conflicting, reports that were later provided by two of the key participants. The topic and content of the retreat is of direct relevance to Benedict XVI’s Regensburg Lecture. It would be most helpful for understanding Benedict XVI’s true position regarding Islam if the contents of this important ‘private’ Seminar were to be made fully public.
It would have also been helpful to Benedict XVI to hear Muslim theologians themselves on what they thought and taught about God. Instead, Benedict XVI invited his students to listen to, and discuss with, two Catholic Scholars specialized in Islamics and Christian-Muslim relations. Both scholars: the German Jesuit Christian Troll and the Egyptian Jesuit Samir Khalil Samir are renowned Catholic experts in Islamic studies. However, both tend to be deeply suspicious of what may be called ‘traditional Islam’. Troll is fundamentally convinced that Islam must be reformed and is an expert on, and an active supporter of non-traditionalist ‘reformers’. Samir is less charitable to Islam, be it traditional or ‘reformed’, and is often quite hostile. Together with some other close advisors of Benedict XVI, like the American Jesuit Joseph Fessio, Samir has been clearly taking an Islamophobic approach that may explain the direction of the Lecture of Benedict XVI.
It is noteworthy that some of Benedict’s closest advisors on Islam have recently been hostile types who believe that Islam, at least as it stands, is inherently violent and who are filled with fear of its expansion. Several Catholic or secular advisors who know better than to instill Islamophobia into the Pontiff’s heart have generally been marginalized, retired or ignored. Some, like the deeply respected Bishop Michael Fitzgerald have been moved to other, respectable, but less central positions. The subsuming of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious dialogue under the Pontifical Council for Culture, and the continued deterioration of the Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies, have all combined to create a situation where Benedict XVI is increasingly being advised on Islam by the least sympathetic Catholic scholars of it.
It is important that Muslim scholars strive to intellectually and theologically engage Benedict XVI, and not through the filters of some Islamo-phobic Catholic Orientalists. It is important for the Catholic Pontiff to select his advisors more widely, and to be weary of narrow and prejudiced views, even if they happen to be held by so called ‘experts’ of Islamic Studies. He should also be careful of trusting the purely ethnic claims to expertise of some Arab Catholic scholars. It is well known that some members of minorities within a larger culture are sometimes the least expert on its full richness. Some members of minorities are often obsessed with feelings of persecution and fears of destruction. There are some Arab Catholic Islamics specialists who have very dubious views on Islam and Muslims, and whose Islamo-phobic views are trusted because they happen to be Arabs.
On the other hand, there are Arab Christians, both Catholic and non-Catholic, who do have a very deep understanding and appreciation of Islam and Muslims and who can provide the Pontiff with very good advice. Respected and fair figures such as Bishop Michel Sabah and Metropolitan Georege Khoder can offer Benedict XVI a deep understanding of Islam and Muslims. There are also several non-Arab Catholic Orientalists who can be of great help to Benedict XVI on Islamic matters. These scholars include Maurice Bourmans, Michel Lagarde, Etienne Renault, and Thomas Michel.
In times of war and strife we humans tend to trust the views of those who tend to make us fear the perceived enemy and who help us mobilize our energies against it. It does not at all help Benedict XVI, or our tarnished world for the people he trusts on matters Islamic to openly say things like:
“Benedict is aiming at more essential points: theology is not what counts, at least not in this stage of history; what counts is the fact that Islam is the religion that is developing more and is becoming more and more a danger for the West and the world. The danger is not in Islam in general, but in a certain vision of Islam that does never openly renounces violence and generates terrorism, fanaticism.”
Or, worse still:
“The West is once again under siege. Doubly so because in addition to terrorist attacks there is a new form of conquest: immigration coupled with high fertility. Let us hope that, following the Holy Father’s courageous example in these troubled times, there can be a dialogue whose subject is the truth claims of Christianity and Islam.”
Such views are very dangerous and will only lead to more war and strife. They are the exact counter-part and mirror-image of the views of pseudo-Islamic terrorists.
Christians and Muslims must be on the alert for such Manichean and polarizing views, and must strive to live in daily deep and fair discernment so as to improve the painful situation in which we all live.
It is essential, therefore, that Muslims and reasonable-non-Muslim serious-and-fair scholars engage the Pontiff in scholarly and intellectual discussion of the kind he praises at the beginning of his Lecture.
“Once a semester there was a dies academicus, when professors from every faculty appeared before the students of the entire university, making possible a genuine experience of universitas – something that you too, Magnificent Rector, just mentioned – the experience, in other words, of the fact that despite our specializations which at times makes it difficult to communicate with each other, we made up a whole, working in everything on the basis of a single rationality with its various aspects and sharing responsibility for the right use of reason – this reality became a lived experience.”
Benedict XVI clearly appreciates the experience of ‘universitas’ through the periodic encounter with the other. He sees clearly that specialization can lead to a dangerous narrowing that closes horizons of true communication. It is important to point out that just as there is a ‘universitas’ based on our common humanity and reasonableness, there is a monotheistic universitas based on our common belief in the One True God. It is important that Christians and Muslims, despite (and because of) their dedicated devotions to their own religions, work together in mutual-respect and dialogue for the sake of the One True God. Such a dialogue must become a lived experience that leads us closer to world peace.
Benedict XVI then points out the importance of research and discussions about the reasonableness of faith, and that in such research and discussions, even radical skepticism has to be considered and engaged. “That even in the face of such radical skepticism it is still necessary and reasonable to raise the question of God through the use of reason, and to do so in the context of the tradition of the Christian faith: this, within the university as a whole, was accepted without question.
Recognition of the importance of such research and discussion is the very foundation of the extensive and deep field of Islamic Studies called ‘Ilm al-Kalam’, or Muslim systematic theology. As a matter of fact, many Kalam manuals open with extensive considerations of the position of the skeptics by way of establishing the validity of seeking out reasons in support of religious faith. All great scholars of Kalam recognized the fact that discussions, argumentations, and disputations with others can only be conducted on the basis of a shared human reasonableness that forms a kind of ‘universitas scientiarum’.
The manuals of Kalam are full of extensive reasoned discussions with Skeptics, Atheists, Naturalists, Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, Buddhists, Hindus, Aristotelians, Platonists, and a host of other religions and philosophies.
It is most unfortunate that Benedict’s appreciation of discussions based on ‘universitas scientiarum’ do not seem to extend to Islam and Muslims. Despite the fact that many Muslim scholars and institutions responded positively to the Catholic Church’s newfound openness to dialogue with them (as expressed in the documents of Vatican II), and worked very hard in many dialogue settings, Benedict XVI seems to think (from later parts of his lecture) that such reasonable discussion is only possible within a European/Christian/Hellenistic setting. This is both historically and actually untrue and unfair.
After his fairly benign Lecture opening, Benedict XVI suddenly conjures up a most troubling legacy:
“I was reminded of all this recently, when I read the edition by Professor Theodore Khoury (Münster) of part of the dialogue carried on – perhaps in 1391 in the winter barracks near Ankara – by the erudite Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian on the subject of Christianity and Islam, and the truth of both.”
It is not clear how Paleologus’ dialogue “reminded” Benedict XVI of “all this”. I would have liked to believe that Benedict XVI was reminded of the value of reasoned discussion, based on common humanity, by the fact that a Christian and a Muslim were having a reasoned discussion even in the midst of a siege. Alas, I think a more likely reading is that Benedict XVI was reminded of the presumed intimate relationship between Christian faith and reason by the fact that a Christian, faced with a violent Islam, still focused on the equation of his faith with reasonableness.
Benedict XVI very much starting with a ‘siege’ setting resurrects a scene from the siege of Constantinople, with all its associated symbolism:
“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 Qur’an, and deals especially with the image of God and of man, while necessarily returning repeatedly to the relationship between – as they were called – three “Laws” or “rules of life”: the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Qur’an. It is not my intention to discuss this question in the present lecture; here I would like to discuss only one point – itself rather marginal to the dialogue as a whole – 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.”
It is strange that Benedict XVI selected an admittedly “marginal” point from an obscure medieval dialogue, written at a particularly abnormal and tense moment in history, to find a “starting-point” for his reflections on “faith and reason”. One could imagine an infinitely large number of possible, more direct and sensible, starting-points.
Many an alternative starting-point could have helped Benedict XVI make his main points about faith and reason without using a disfigured straw-man Islam. The connection between the medieval dialogue and the main point of the lecture is so strained and distant; invoking the dialogue unnecessarily damages Christian-Muslim relations. This is at a time when we truly need the healing of these relations.
Then, of all the sections of the Emperor’s book, the Pontiff chooses to focus on the one concerning Holy War or Jihad: “In the seventh conversation (d???e??? – controversy) edited by Professor Khoury, the emperor touches on the theme of the holy war. The emperor must have known that surah 2, 256 reads: “There is no compulsion in religion”. According to the experts, this 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 Qur’an, concerning holy war.”
It is also interesting that Benedict, invoking the authority of anonymous “experts”, summarily dismisses the clear and still normative Qur’anic ruling ‘There is no compulsion in religion’ by claiming that it was only upheld by Muhammad (peace be upon him) in times of weakness!
Instead of cherishing this ruling, and challenging Muslims today to live-up to it, the Pontiff dismisses an important Islamic resource for reasonableness and peace by seeing it as a fake Islamic stance that was only ever held because of temporary weakness! This is most unfortunate. The no-compulsion verse has never been revoked and has always been binding.
At no point in history did Muslim jurists legally authorize the forced conversions of people of other religions. This vital verse was foundational for the tolerance that Muslims did concretely demonstrate towards Christians and Jews living in their midst. It is very dangerous for the Pontiff to dismiss a Qur’anic verse that actually formed, and still forms, a juridical and historical guarantee of safety to Christians and Jews living amongst Muslims.
Furthermore, the disheartening claim by Benedict XVI that Muhammad (peace be upon him) whimsically changed Islam’s principles and juridical teachings, depending on his weakness or strength, is simply an echo of prejudiced unfair views that have surfaced again and again in Christian and Western polemics against Islam. Wiser and fairer advice could have saved Benedict XVI from adopting such prejudices.
The image of an opportunist Prophet, which Benedict XVI invokes in passing, is deeply painful and offensive to Muslims. How would Benedict XVI feel if Muslims pointed out that the Catholic Church only became tolerant of Muslims and Jews after it lost its power in Europe, and that this tolerance was really granted by Secular states and not by the Church, but opportunistically claimed by it. Such a point is likely to give pain and offence. Imagine, then, the pain and offense we Muslims feel as Benedict XVI claims that our beloved Prophet is an opportunist who teaches one thing when he is weak, only to reverse it when he gets stronger.
Benedict XVI goes further:
“Without descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the “Book” and the “infidels”, …”
Again, Benedict XVI strangely dismisses, in passing, yet another Islamic resource for tolerance towards Christians and Jews. Islam has always distinguished between ‘the People of the Book’ (Christians and Jews), and mere Pagans. The People of the Book living in Muslim communities were always granted the right to worship in peace largely based on this important distinction. It is very important to note that some of the hateful discourses of recent pseudo-Islamic terrorists have worked very hard to dilute the distinction between Christianity and Paganism (by calling Christians ‘Cross-Worshipers’) precisely in order to remove the juridical protection granted to Christianity and Judaism under Muslim Jurisprudence. Benedict XVI seems to imply that such distinctions are minor and only obscure Islam’s purported intolerance.
Benedicts XVI then goes on to quote one of the most disturbing passages in the Emperor’s discourse:
“… he addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness, a brusqueness which leaves us astounded, 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”.
This hateful and hurtful passage is what the media picked up the most, and what most of the popular Muslim reactions have reacted to.
Tragically, Benedict XVI, having invoked this piece of hate-literature back from its historical dormancy, fails to distance himself from the opinion of its original author. He does use such languages as ‘brusqueness’, ‘leaves us astounded’ and ‘expresses himself forcefully’. However, none of these expressions constitutes a negative judgment or rejection of the opinion of the original author. As a matter of fact, they may even be read as indicative of a subtle support of a supposed bravery that may be a bit reckless.
When someone gratuitously invokes a very obscure text that expresses hatful things one has a moral obligation to explain why he goes out of his way to invoked it, and a further obligation to respond to it, and to dismiss the hate expressed in it. Otherwise, it is very reasonable to assume that the person invoking the hurtful text does mean it, and does share the views expressed in it.
To claim that no hurtful intent was present, and that Muslims simply did not understand the text, agonizingly adds insult to injury. This is why the quasi-apology of Benedict XVI was not considered adequate by many Muslims. All the Vatican’s statements to date, including the address of Benedict XVI express regret for the fact that Muslims supposedly misunderstood the Pontiff’s Lecture and have reacted badly to it.
Such an approach simply accuses Muslims of lack of understanding and over-reaction. This approach, instead of meekly and humbly admitting the hurt one has caused, blames the ones being hurt for taking the insult the wrong way! Many devout Catholics have, unfortunately, seen Muslim rejections of the quasi-apology and Muslim’s emotional reactions to the words about their Prophet (peace be upon him) as indicative of Benedict XVI’s correct and heroic stance.
Benedict goes on:
“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 (s?`? ????) 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….”
Interestingly, if one consults a reliable classical Qur’anic exegesis book (tafsir) for an exegesis of the verse ‘There is no compulsion in religion’, one would find explanations that are very similar to the Emperor’s point about the heart or soul being the abode of faith. All Muslim theological treatises have a section on faith (Iman). There is unanimity amongst all Muslim theologians that faith resides in the abode of the heart or soul and that no physical compulsion can ever affect it.
It is interesting to note that Benedict XVI was for many years the ‘Prefect of the Faith’ of the Catholic Church. The Prefect of the Faith is the distant modern version of the Inquisition. The Inquisition seldom respected the sanctity of the human heart in matters of faith. Tragically, for Muslims and Jews, especially in Spain, the Church used a dizzying battery of physical torture techniques to get Muslims and Jews to convert to Christianity. The Inquisition never heeded such advice as that of the Emperor: “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”. We could all learn from this advice.
It is Qur’anically normative for Muslims to call to the path of God through wisdom, wholesome advice, and proper discussion. There is no sanction in Islam for torturing people into conversion. Indonesia and Malaysia have more Muslims than all Arab countries combined. No Muslim army ever entered these lands. How did Islam spread there?
Nevertheless, it will be dishonest or naïve to claim that no Muslim army ever conquered any land. However, creating a domain where God can be freely worshiped does not entail converting the inhabitants of that domain by force of the ‘sword’. Muslim conquests seldom translated into forced conversions. The evidence is clear: Muslim dominated lands still have Christian minorities. How many Muslims or Jews were left in Spain after the Catholic Ferdinand and Isabella re-conquered it?
Interestingly, Muslims, as immigrants, were only ever able to re-enter Europe under the multi-cultural policies of secular Europe. If the Catholic Church had its way would that have been possible? Benedict XVI himself is famous for rejecting Turkey’s plea to become part of Europe for lack of the right religious and cultural credentials.
In some past Vatican statements Muslims were sometimes called upon to forget the past (when it comes to the Inquisition or the Crusades). In Islam, acknowledgment and regret are necessary pre-conditions of true repentance and forgiveness. Benedict XVI, by self-righteously invoking the hurtful accusations of a long-dead Emperor, is, 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 violence inflicted, or supported, by the Catholic Church extended all the way to modern times through the support of European colonial conquests of the rest of the world. Missionaries, especially Jesuits, went hand-in-hand with colonialists into the Americas, Africa, and Asia. In my native Libya Italian fascists armies and death squads used to be blessed by the local Catholic authorities in the Cathedral’s square before they went to hunt Libyan resistance fighters. This was happening as late as the 1930’s. The Ethiopian soldiers the fascists force-marched in the front of the Italian armies bore big red crosses on their chests just as the knights of Saint John did when they slaughtered Tripoli’s inhabitants back in the 1500’s.
The image of a non-violent hellenistically ‘reasonable’ Christianity contrasted to a violent un-reasonable Islam is foundational for the Lecture of Benedict XVI. This self-image is amazingly self-righteous and is oblivious to many painful historical facts. It is very important for our world that we all begin to see the poles that are in our own eyes, rather than focus on the specks in the eyes of our brethren.
Benedict XVI further says:
“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.”
Benedict XVI’s ‘decisive statement’: ‘Not to act in accordance to reason is contrary to God’s nature’. This statement is very complex, and is open to many interpretations and discussions. What is amazing is the swiftness and ease with which it is used to make up what amounts to, a deeply disturbing, false contrast between a peace-loving-reasonable Christianity and a violent-loving-unreasonable Islam!
The reason for the swiftness and ease is the fact that such a contrast is a famous one taken from what we maybe called ‘contrast tables’ that are often simplistically invoked in some missionary and polemical discourses. The idea of such tables is to put Christianity at the top of one column and Islam at the top of the other. One then goes on to fill the table with such polarities as: Love/Law, Peace/Violence, Freeing/Enslaving, Women-liberating/Women-oppressing and so on.
Such tables are reminiscent and are related to the tables the Athenians, the Romans, and even the German Idealists (who do have an influence on the Bavarian Pontiff) often developed to contrast the ‘Civilized’ with the ‘Barbarian’, the ‘European’ with the ‘non-European’.
Unfortunately, for their proponents such tables never work. They are grossly over simplified and create contrasts at a great cost to truth and fairness. In Islam, just as in Christianity, it is not human calculative reason that is salvific, but rather the free underserved grace (rahma) of God. One of the many graces that God gifts to human beings is the gift of reason.
Reason as a gift from God can never be above God. That is the whole point of Ibn Hazm; a point that was paraphrased in such a mutilated way by Benedict XVI’s learned sources. Ibn Hazm, like the Asha’rite theologians with whom he often contended, did insist upon God’s absolute freedom to act. However, Ibn Hazm did recognize, like most other Muslim theologians that God freely chooses, in His compassion towards His creatures, to self-consistently act reasonably so that we can use our reason to align ourselves with His guidance and directive.
Ibn Hazm, like most other Muslim theologians did hold that God is not externally-bound by anything, including reason. However, at no point does Ibn Hazm claim that God does not freely self-commit Himself and honors such commitments Such divine free-self-committing is Qur’anically propounded “kataba rabukum ala nafsihi al-Rahma” (Your Lord has committed Himself to compassion). Reason need not be above God, and externally normative to Him. It can be a grace of God that is normative because of God’s own free commitment to acting consistently with it.
A person who believes the last proposition need not be an irrational or un-reasonable human-being, with an irrational or whimsical God! The contrast between Christianity and Islam on this basis is not only unfair, but also quite questionable.
Granted that the Pontiff is striving to convince a secular university that theology has a place in that reason-based setting. However, this should not go so far as to make God subject to an externally-binding reason. Most major Christian theologians, even the reason-loving Aquinas never put reason above God.
When Muslim theologians make a similar move, they should not be accused of irrationality or un-reasonableness. Such misunderstanding is the direct result of simplistic contrast tables of which scholars like Theodore Khoury are apparently fond.
Benedict XVI should not trust his views on Muslim theology to scholars like Khoury or Samir Khalil Samir. Their views of Islam and Muslims are often most unfair. He may not want to consult with Muslims, and may not even trust them to know their own doctrines; but he should, at least, consult some serious scholars who are not necessarily from an Arab Christian minority or a very narrow Catholic Orientalist group.
Benedict goes on:
“At this point, as far as understanding of God and thus the concrete practice of religion is concerned, we are faced with an unavoidable dilemma. Is the conviction that acting unreasonably contradicts God’s nature merely a Greek idea, or is it always and intrinsically true?”
Benedict XVI’s way of phrasing this issue is again open to many interpretations and engagements. This is not the place for unpacking a very loaded question. Suffice it to say that talk of the ‘nature’ of God is itself problematic.
Talk of reasonableness and unreasonableness is also quite problematic. What is this reason we are talking about? Is it a human faculty of understanding? If so, what kind of understanding? Is it cognitive? Is it emotive? Is it spiritual? Or is reason, rather, some sort of an ontologically primary agent or emanation, as the Neo-Platonists often taught? What sort of reason and reasonableness are we talking about?
Such questions need further and deeper reflections. However, interestingly, the ambiguity and vagueness of the word ‘reason’ allow for the amazing leap of unifying the Greek and the Christian by appealing to the very Hellenistic Prologue to the Gospel of John.
As Benedict XVI puts it:
“I believe that here we can see the profound harmony between what is Greek in the best sense of the word and the biblical understanding of faith in God. Modifying the first verse of the Book of Genesis, the first verse of the whole Bible, John began the prologue of his Gospel with the words: “In the beginning was the ?????”. This is the very word used by the emperor: God acts, s?`? ????, with logos. Logos means both reason and word – a reason which is creative and capable of self-communication, precisely as reason.”
Here we come close to getting a definition of what Benedict XVI means by reason: “a reason which is creative and capable of self-communication”. This is indeed close to what John speaks of. However, is this the same reason as the reason of the Greek Philosophers? I think not. Reason for most Greek philosophers was more associated with pure contemplation or theoria, than with creative activity or poesis. Furthermore, for most Greek philosophers it was being as such or to on that was truly ‘self-communicating’. Reason for most of them was a human capacity to receive this self-communicating being.
Therefore, the great unifying vision of Benedict, which brings together the Greek with the Christian, turns out to be a move made possible through the ambiguities of such rich and loaded words as ‘logos’ or ‘reason’. Of course such moves have often been practiced in the past within the theological, exegetical and spiritual traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Of course, a great deal of medieval discourse depends precisely on this kind of ambiguity-fueled leaping. However, it is quite strange that this medieval leaping tactic is being used to bridge the gap between the cool rationalistic reason of the German University, and the logos of the Catholic Church!
Benedict XVI, then makes an astoundingly Hegelian statement:
“John thus spoke the final word on the biblical concept of God, and in this word all the often toilsome and tortuous threads of biblical faith find their culmination and synthesis.”
Benedict XVI claims that John spoke the ‘final word’ on the biblical concept of God. He also makes the Hegelian claim that biblical faith took a “toilsome” and “torturous” path to culminate in this Johannine synthesis.
I will leave it to Christian theologians of various denominations and schools to comment on such a claim. In light of the cumulative findings of historical-critical researches into the Bible, it is very strange that it is still possible to make such critically debatable statements about a biblical faith that is supposedly making a long journey to culminate in a Greco-Christian synthesis.
I am sure Jewish scholars will also find difficulties with the implicit claim that Torah threads of faith are “toilsome” and “tortuous”, and that John was needed to make it all culminate into true and final biblical faith. While Hegelian synthesis and culmination sounds wonderfully exciting to the one with the culmination results, it is sure to bother all who are being culminated!
Then, yet again, the argumentation leaps into Hegelian speculation, but this time introducing a dangerously ‘European’ claim to Christianity:
“In the beginning was the logos, and the logos is God, says the Evangelist. The encounter between the Biblical message and Greek thought did not happen by chance. The vision of Saint Paul, who saw the roads to Asia barred and in a dream saw a Macedonian man plead with him: “Come over to Macedonia and help us!” (cf. Acts 16:6-10) – this vision can be interpreted as a “distillation” of the intrinsic necessity of a rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek inquiry.”
The Asia versus Macedonia contrast is used to justify the strange claim that there is an “intrinsic necessity” of rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek inquiry.
Thus in Europe and not in Asia, and with European reason and not with Asiatic Reason Christianity comes to unite with “Greek inquiry”. This Hegelian talk suffers from the same Euro-centric tendency of much of Germanic idealist philosophy.
This tendency is very dangerous indeed for it demotes versions of Christianity that manifest themselves in non-Greek and non-European milieus (for Example South American, African, and Asian theologies).
It also makes a claim to Reason in general, and to Greek reason, in particular, and appropriates it to make it purely Christian. Thus the historical facts of even clear, let alone partial, Jewish-Hellenistic syntheses (as in Philo of Alexandria), and Muslim-Hellenistic syntheses (as in Al-Farabi, Ikhwan al-Safa, Ibn Sina) are simply denied as impossible. Only the Christian is united with the Greek in a Johannine Hegelian European culmination.
Muslims, like Christians and Jews, before and after them, worked out many profound philosophical and theological systems the aim of which was the harmonization of the claims of human reasoning and the truths of divine revelation. The philosophers just mentioned were not alone. Theologians of the Mu’tazili, Asha’ri, Maturidi, Ithna Ashri, Isma’ili, Ibadi and even Hanbali schools all strived to articulate their faith in as reasonable a manner as possible. Even introductory texts of Islamic Philosophy and Theology make this clear. The intricate dialectical and logical works of the great Abdul Jabbar, Asha’ri, Baqillani, Jwaini, Ghazali, Razi, Maturidi, Nasfi, Ibn Rushd, and Ibn Sabain, amongst others, are testaments to the keen Muslim interest in reason and reasonableness when it comes to articulating matters of faith. Even the most conservative of Hanbalites, Ibn Taimmiyah, wrote important works on non-Aristotelian logics and has anti-Aristotelian arguments akin to those of Sextus Empiricus!
Benedict XVI, in the closing section of a long passage, that would fit very nicely as a preface to Hegel’s Philosophy of Religion or Philosophy of History, goes on to claim:
“A profound encounter of faith and reason is taking place here, an encounter between genuine enlightenment and religion. From the very heart of Christian faith and, at the same time, the heart of Greek thought now joined to faith, Manuel II was able to say: Not to act “with logos” is contrary to God’s nature.”
The Septuagint is, thus, accorded a primacy that I am sure will sound strange to many Christian ears. The synthesis of biblical faith and Greek reason is simply accorded ultimate value as the culmination of a process through which all other ways of religiosity are relegated to things subsumed and superseded.
Yet Benedict XVI, being a scholar of medieval theology knows that he can not deny certain facts:
“In all honesty, one must observe that in the late Middle Ages we find trends in theology which would sunder this synthesis between the Greek spirit and the Christian spirit. In contrast with the so-called intellectualism of Augustine and Thomas, there arose with Duns Scotus a voluntarism which, in its later developments, led to the claim that we can only know God’s voluntas ordinata. Beyond this is the realm of God’s freedom, in virtue of which he could have done the opposite of everything he has actually done. This gives rise to positions which clearly approach those of Ibn Hazm and might even lead to the image of a capricious God, who is not even bound to truth and goodness. God’s transcendence and otherness are so exalted that our reason, our sense of the true and good, are no longer an authentic mirror of God, whose deepest possibilities remain eternally unattainable and hidden behind his actual decisions.”
This passage, while serving its author’s ultimate goal of undermining the theologies mentioned in it, does at least show that Benedict XVI is somewhat aware that other possible theologies do exist, and that Muslim theologians were not alone in caring about the affirmation of God’s sovereignty against human pretensions to govern Him with human criteria.
Unfortunately, he goes on to totally undermine such theologies as not being the true ‘faith of the Church’. It is also very interesting that, in a follow-on passage, Benedict XVI, for a moment, does affirm a love that transcends knowledge, but then re-interprets that affirmation by claiming it is logos that loves. Thus he synthesizes logos and reason. It turns out to be reason that actually loves.
Then, in clear and unambiguous terms, we see the actual foundational claim of Benedict XVI, and the ultimate reason for his troubles with Islam:
“This inner rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry was an event of decisive importance not only from the standpoint of the history of religions, but also from that of world history – it is an event which concerns us even today. Given this convergence, it is not surprising Christianity, despite its origins and some significant developments in the East, finally took on its historically decisive character in Europe. We can also express this the other way around: this convergence, with the subsequent addition of the Roman heritage, created Europe and remains the foundation of what can rightly be called Europe.”
He clearly claims that Europe is the only place where Christianity and Reason culminated in a great synthesis that is European civilization. Thus Europe is Christian-Greek and rational, and Christianity is European-Greek and rational. If Europe-Christianity is to be kept pure, all non-European elements and non-Christian elements must be kept out. This is why Islam and Muslims have no place in this great Hegelian synthesis! This alarming set of neo-colonial ideas supports the thesis of the Barbarous (non-Greek) and non-European nature of Islam. Islam, according to this kind of thinking, is ‘Asiatic’ ‘non-rational’ and ‘violent’. It has no place in ‘Greek’, ‘rational’ and ‘reasonable’ Europe.
Now that Benedict XVI has reached his thesis of the synthesis of the Greek and the Christian into a single logos, he proceeds to undermine all attempts to deny this synthesis. He goes on to criticize three phases of what he calls ‘dehellenization’:
“The thesis that the critically purified Greek heritage forms an integral part of Christian faith has been countered by the call for a dehellenization of Christianity – a call which has more and more dominated theological discussions since the beginning of the modern age. Viewed more closely, three stages can be observed in the programme of dehellenization: although interconnected, they are clearly distinct from one another in their motivations and objectives.”
It is better for Muslims to leave it to Christian theologians to comment on the extent of the fairness and accuracy of Benedict XVI assessment of the Christian tradition. However, to this Muslim, it does seem astonishing that Benedict XVI seems to sweep all of the Reformers’ efforts as a dehellenization that undermines the true synthesis earlier celebrated by him. I will also leave it to Protestant theologians to reply to Benedict XVI’s sweeping claims.
Benedict XVI then blames the theologian von Harnack for the second dehellenization. I will, again, leave it to von Harnack scholars to reply to the claims made by Benedict XVI. It does strike me as strange, however, to find von Harnack accused of dehellenization. Following Karl Barth, I believe that von Harnack was Hellenizing rather than the opposite. He may evem be seen as reducing theology to a kind of Aristotelian phronesis.
Benedict XVI’s the third, and last, type of dehelleniztion, is worthy of more attention.
“Before I draw the conclusions to which all this has been leading, I must briefly refer to the third stage of dehellenization, which is now in progress. In the light of our experience with cultural pluralism, it is often said nowadays that the synthesis with Hellenism achieved in the early Church was a preliminary inculturation which ought not to be binding on other cultures. The latter are said to have the right to return to the simple message of the New Testament prior to that inculturation, in order to inculturate it anew in their own particular milieu. This thesis is not only false; it is coarse and lacking in precision. The New Testament was written in Greek and bears the imprint of the Greek spirit, which had already come to maturity as the Old Testament developed. True, there are elements in the evolution of the early Church which do not have to be integrated into all cultures. Nonetheless, the fundamental decisions made about the relationship between faith and the use of human reason are part of the faith itself; they are developments consonant with the nature of faith itself.”
Yet again, we are faced with a Euro-centric and Greco-centric arrogant approbation of Christianity. I will leave it to Latin American, African and Asian Christian theologians to address this strange appropriation.
For a Church that is now quite international, the Pontiff is really going out of his way to alienate all who are not into Greek-European culture. He is basically claiming that such Greek and European elements are fundamental to the Christian faith itself. I find the whole claim dangerously arrogant. It is not only Islam and Muslim who are threatened by it. I truly believe that this lecture should alarm Muslims, Christians and Jews alike.
This alarm is extenuated by the fact that the alarming position is not that of just a Professor or a theologian, but of a Roman Catholic Pontiff who leads millions of human beings. It is, therefore, urgent and vital that Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Secular scholars engage the Pontiff and challenge his views not only on Islam, but also on what it means to be a reasonable human being, and what it means to be a European.
As for Islam and its Prophet (peace be upon him), centuries of cruel and vicious attacks against them, both verbal and physical, have only made them stronger. The sun shall still shine no matter what dark clouds strive to do.
Let us pray for a better world, a peaceful world, a respectful world. Let us engage in a dialogue that is based on mutual-respect, and is elevated above mere polemics. The One God has created us all, and willed for us to be so different, let us learn more about each other, and let us, together, construct a better world, for God’s sake.
1. Published under the title: “Faith, Reason and the University Memories and Reflections”, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Vatican, 2006.http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/speeches/2006/september/documents/hf_ben-xvi_spe_20060912_university-regensburg_en.html. All quotations are from the Lecture unless otherwise indicated.
2. Cicero, Marcus Tullius: De Officiis.Translated by Walter Miller. Loeb Editions. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1913. See also: Bradley, Francis Herbert. “My Station and Its Duties” in Ethical Studies. Oxford University Press, Oxford,1988.
3. I refer here to the post-Positivist Philosophy of Science of Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn, Imre Lakatos and others. For the many meanings of Reason and Rationality and the possibility of deeper understandings of them see also Whose Justice? Which Rationality? by Alasdair MacIntyre. University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, 1988.
4. On this important Seminar, see:
“When Civilizations Meet: How Joseph Ratzinger Sees Islam” by by Samir Khalil Samir, S.J. www.chiesa, Roma, September 25, 2006. Orignally published by Asia News.http://www.chiesa.espressonline.it/dettaglio.jsp?id=53826&eng=y “Islam and Democracy, a Secret Meeting at Castel Gandolfo: The synopsis of a weekend of study on Islam with the pope and his former theology students”by Sandro Magister. www.chiesa, Roma, September 25, 2006. http://www.chiesa.espressonline.it/dettaglio.jsp?id=45084&eng=y
5. For confirmation of this account, see the excellent “Benedict XVI and Islam: the first year” by Abdal Hakim Murad. First appeared in Q News. http://www.masud.co.uk/ISLAM/ahm/AHM-Benedict.htm
6. When Civilizations Meet: How Joseph Ratzinger Sees Islam It was written for and published by “Asia News.” by Samir Khalil Samir, S.J. www.chiesa, Roma, September 25, 2006.http://www.chiesa.espressonline.it/dettaglio.jsp?id=53826&eng=y
7. “Is Dialogue with Islam Possible? Some Reflections on Pope Benedict XVI’s Address at the University of Regensburg” by Joseph Fessio, S.J.. Ignatius Insight. September 18, 2006http://www.ignatiusinsight.com/features2006/jfessio_reflections_sept06.asp
Aref Ali Nayed* ©2006
*The Author, Aref Ali Nayed, studied Engineering (B.Sc.(Eng.)), Philosophy of Science (M.A.), and Hermeneutics (Ph.D.) at the University of Iowa and the University of Guelph. He also studied, as a special student, at the University of Toronto and the Pontifical Gregorian University. He is a Former Professor at the Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies (Rome), and the International Institute for Islamic Thought and Civilization (Malaysia). He is currently an Advisor to the Cambridge Interfaith Program at the Faculty of Divinity in Cambridge, and runs a family business as the Managing Director of Agathon Systems Ltd. (IBM, Nortel and NCR Partner for Libya).
In the immediate aftermath of the election of Joseph Ratzinger to the Papacy, Muslim reactions to the new pontiff were diverse and confused. Turks were dismayed by his very public opposition to their membership of the European Union, a view rooted in his conviction that ‘Europe was founded not on geography but on a common faith.’ Others pointed to the absence of any mention of Muslims from his inaugural address (a fact welcomed by the Jerusalem Post) as a hint that Vatican willingness to open minds and hearts to dialogue with Islam was now at an end. Despite this, however, some Muslims, most notably Akbar Ahmad, welcomed the appointment of a man of considerable seriousness and intelligence, in the hope that he would reinvigorate the world’s moral debate. This Muslim ambivalence seems set to continue, partly thanks to the fact that a year into his papacy, Ratzinger has not spoken or written in any substantial way about Islam, realising, perhaps, that fools rush in where angels fear to tread.
His Polish predecessor had certainly recognised Islam’s immense importance, and had sought to encourage a friendly Muslim view of the papacy. This bore fruit in a remarkable outpouring of Muslim commemorations upon his death. The Shaykh al-Azhar described his demise as ‘a great loss for the Catholic Church and the Muslim world. He was a man who defended the values of justice and peace.’ The then Iranian president Khatami praised John Paul as a master of three spiritual paths: philosophy, poetry, and artistic creativity. Yusuf al-Qardawi commended his opposition to Israel’s ‘apartheid wall,’ and asked Muslims to offer their condolences to Christians. In Afghanistan, a Taliban spokesman said that ‘even though some have launched a Crusader war against Islam, the pope’s voice was for bringing peace to the world.’ Overall, the Muslim world’s affection for John Paul was clear.
John Paul had earned this distinction in multiple ways. Often impulsive, he could not be said to have maintained a distinctive ‘Islam policy’, but he made several significant gestures which indicated his awareness of the religion’s growing importance and its spiritual integrity. In 1985 he became the first Pope to visit a Muslim country, and in 2001 the first to enter a mosque, where he annoyed ultra-conservative Catholics by kissing a copy of the Qur’an. ‘Your God and ours is the same God, and we are brothers and sisters in the faith of Abraham,’ he told a Muslim crowd. His appeal, he said, was to ‘authentic religious Islam, the praying Islam, the Islam that knows how to join in solidarity with the needy.’ He distinguished this clearly from extremism, which he seldom failed to condemn.
To date, Ratzinger has shown few signs of continuing this theologically-unarticulated but sincere desire to reach out in affirmation. On the contrary, he has already shown himself to be sharply judgemental. He worried Muslims across Europe when, in an August 2005 meeting with imams in Germany who were worried about discrimination against their community, he made it clear that the only issue he wished to raise was ‘Islamic terrorism’. Apparently echoing a standard right-wing claim (made by Joerg Haider, Pim Fortuyn and Jean-Marie Le Pen in particular), he has said that ‘Islam is not simply a denomination that can be included in the free realm of a pluralistic society.’ Another theme which he shares with the far right is his apparent belief that Muslims in Europe cannot be ‘assimilated’: ‘Islam makes no sort of concession to inculturation.’ (He does not seem to have noticed the immense differences in Muslim cultural style across the world.)
Such misunderstandings are the staple of Italy’s leading anti-immigration writer, Oriana Fallaci, who, at the time of writing, is in court on charges of incitement to religious hatred. Fallaci is the author of three anti-Muslim works popular in right-wing circles, and offers views of the usual xenophobic type: ‘Islam sows hatred in the place of love and slavery in the place of freedom.’ One of the most striking acts of Benedict’s papacy to date has been his unusual granting of a private audience to Fallaci in the papal palace at Castelgandolfo. The meeting was arranged discreetly, but was discovered by an Italian journalist, and later acknowledged by the Vatican press office. The content of the consultation was not made public, but Muslim sources noted that Fallaci, who had repeatedly condemned the previous pope’s commitment to dialogue with Muslims, has been consistently supportive of Benedict.
The Vatican’s apparent volte-face with respect to Muslims is not the work of Ratzinger alone. The sociologist Renzo Guolo, in his book Xenophobes and Xenophiles: Italians and Islam, notes a ‘turnaround in the Italian bishops’ conference in recent years.’ A new right-wing spirit has taken hold in many quarters. Cardinal Biffi of Bologna, for instance, has called for the closure of Italy’s mosques and for a new law banning Muslim immigration, ‘because these people are outside our humanity.’ So widespread is this kind of talk that even the traditionally anti-clerical party, the Northern League, is experimenting with the crusader’s sword. The Euro-MP Francesco Speroni, for instance, has called for a ban on allowing Muslims to enter Italy, prompting one human rights activist, Rinella Cere, to conclude that ‘a “pact with the devil” was clearly being made between sections of the Catholic church and the Northern League.’ And although the previous pope had made clear his opposition to the invasion of Iraq, many influential Church officials now seem to be supportive of Washington’s belief that Western models of government and society can be imposed through force of arms. Once, according to one Catholic journalist, Sandro Magister: ‘Vatican diplomacy did not separate itself from the policy of maintaining good relations with Arabic dictators, especially the secular and nationalistic ones. In the Iraq of Saddam Hussein, this policy obtained conditions of relative privilege for the Chaldean Christians.’ However, in the new atmosphere, ‘The Holy See … does not exclude the possibility that military forces could intervene as “missionaries of peace” when necessary. Present-day Iraq is one of these cases of necessity, in the judgment of Vatican leaders.’
That Ratzinger is part of this new hardening of attitudes towards Muslims may be deduced from some of his most significant reshuffles of Vatican officialdom. The generally eirenic Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, formerly head of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and a well-known adversary of Ratzinger, has been sacked and demoted to run the papal mission in Egypt. Ratzinger has also moved to distance himself from Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the previous pope’s Secretary of State, who is widely regarded as pro-Palestinian, and remains a close friend of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Michel Sabbah. Sodano’s likely successor is widely expected to be Cardinal Ruini, the former president of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, who has been outspoken in insisting that Muslim children in Italian schools should not have the right to study their own religion, because, Ruini believes, this would involve ‘dangerous social indoctrination.’ In Palestine, two key appointments have added to the pessimism of the beleaguered Palestinians. Sabbah has been given a new auxiliary bishop, who will succeed him automatically in two years’ time: this is Fouad Twal of Jordan, regarded in Israel as far more acceptable than Sabbah, who has been a fearless critic of Israel’s policies in the occupied territories. No less symbolic has been the choice of Pierbattista Pizzabella as bishop of the Hebrew-speaking Catholics in Israel. Pizzabella has regularly outraged Palestinian human rights activists by his outspoken support for Israel, and his appointment was loudly applauded in right-wing circles. One Anglican Palestinian leader calls him ‘very bad news’, and sees him as a sign that the Vatican is determined to draw a line under its former support for Palestinian rights, in favour of a pro-Israel strategy that will tie it in with wider right-wing aspirations for the Middle East. In making such an appointment, Ratzinger must have known very well the symbolic gravity of the step he was taking.
Ratzinger’s seeming harshness is regularly interpreted as a sign of a larger change of heart that has come over the Catholic church in recent years in response to the growing demographic significance of Islam in Europe, and the rise of Wahhabi terrorism. However he is not primarily a politician. His emerging Islam policy is ultimately rooted in a distinctive kind of theology. In particular, it should be taken in the context of his wider conservative conviction that Catholicism alone can guide human beings to true salvation, a view that his predecessor had seemed less anxious to advertise. Muslims may wince at his opinion of Islam, but his views on non-Catholic Christians have hardly been less trenchant. He was the leading contributor to the ‘definitive and irrevocable’ Catholic declaration Dominus Jesus in the year 2000, which insisted that non-Catholic churches ‘are not churches in the proper sense,’ and implied that non-Catholics are naturally destined for hellfire. He certainly subscribes to the traditional view that the ordination of Anglican priests is ‘utterly null and void,’ making most church-going in England a kind of theatre, a dim groping after a truth that may only be reliably found in Rome. In fact, his formal position, and his habit of mind, are far from any kind of pluralism, and his criticisms of Islam must be seen in this light. It is not quite correct to say, as some Muslims have done, that he has singled out Islam for a unique condemnation; he is, by the logic of his conservative theology, passionately critical of everything that fails to be ‘in communion with Rome’.
Among Muslim commentators there has as yet been little consideration of the ideas which drive this 78-year old Vatican insider, and which might supply a clue to understanding his view of Islam. Many Muslims think that Christianity in Europe ‘has lost its vision and is becoming a club for the elderly’ (Lord Carey’s allegation about the Anglican Church), in stark contrast to the American situation, where Christianity is politically dominant. Yet as the most significant survival from Europe’s religious past, and as an institution still immensely respected even by many secular Europeans, the Vatican is potentially an important interpreter of Islam to a Europe which now finds itself inhabited by twenty million Muslims, whose rights are increasingly under threat or actively denied by right-wing politicians and municipalities, and where Islamophobic violence is increasingly common.
Ratzinger’s knowledge of Islam is clearly patchy, and based on little practical engagement. The thinkers he prefers to hear tend not to be academic specialists in non-Christian religions, but activists and pastoral theologians. One advisor who has conferred with him on Islam, Joseph Fessio, believes, for instance, that ‘Islam is stuck. It’s stuck with a text that cannot be adapted, or even be interpreted properly,’ a view that Vatican Islam experts such as Daniel Madigan dismiss out of hand. Another rising star said to be close to Papal thinking is Piersandro Vanzan, a Jesuit professor at the Gregorian University in Rome. In early 2006, Vanzan co-authored a piece in the Catholic journal Studium which enthusiastically reproduced standard far-right discourse on Islam, complete with notions such as ‘moderate Islam, properly speaking, does not exist.’ Like Fessio, Fallaci and other self-appointed advisors on Islam, Vanzan has no expertise in Islamic studies, and is regarded as an embarrassment by the better-informed; yet this type of journalistic denunciation, unable or unwilling to distinguish the extreme from the orthodox, appears to be increasingly prominent in Ratzinger’s circle. The dismissal of Fitzgerald, a genuine Islam expert, is symptomatic of this tendency.
It helps to remember that Ratzinger is a European; more particularly, he is intensely Bavarian, and therefore not from a district with a long historic engagement with Islam (Poland, with its ancient and respected Tatar communities, seems to have been a different case). He is an accomplished pianist, a lover of Goethe, baroque sculpture and fine wine, who is less comfortable in other languages than his predecessor. The references in his many theological texts are mainly to the very introspective world of German theology; indeed, it is probable that he knows Lutheran theology better than he does the Catholic theology of the Third World. Bavaria lies at the heart of Europe; and indeed, was the beating heart of Nazism, the most intense of European attempts to reject non-white, non-European others.
Ratzinger is no Nazi; indeed, his thought is in large measure best understood as a reaction against the kind of modernity which produced the twentieth century’s great science-obsessed totalitarianisms. Yet he is deeply European. Faced with several Third World candidates, at the conclave in April 2005 the cardinals deliberately chose an icon of Europeanness, perhaps as an attempt to stem Europe’s drift away from Christianity. The appointment of a European was not really a surprise; what was more interesting was the choice of an icon of the anti-totalitarian reaction which saw the twentieth-century’s violence as a consequence of modernity, not as a strange aberration. Here Ratzinger parts company dramatically with other Catholic thinkers such as Hans Küng, a former friend, whose reading of the times is much more optimistic and upbeat than his own. Indeed, Ratzinger investigated and chastised such men during his time at the helm of his Vatican Congregation, the distant descendent of the Inquisition.
To understand the new pope, it helps to remember that despite this watchdog role he was once a leading light of the ‘moderate progressive’ wing of the Church. During the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s he collaborated with reformist figures such as Karl Rahner in pushing the Church roughly in the direction which had been urged by the Protestant reformers four hundred years before. The Tridentine Mass was scrapped, the notion of the clergy as a separate caste of human beings came under fire, many picturesque medieval traditions were banned, and space was given to lay Catholics in discussing issues once monopolised by the hierarchy. The backdrop was not, however, a stern bible-fundamentalism, but the curious idealism of the post-war years. Apparently oblivious to the threatening presence of a Soviet empire implanting nuclear warheads in silos across Eastern Europe, many in the West believed that it was time that religious conservatism gave way to a more ‘inclusive’ and affirmative attitude to human desires, which could allow Christians to participate in the playful culture of the modern West. Ratzinger, who in his early thirties cautiously committed to this view, repented suddenly when his students at the University of Tübingen’s Faculty of Catholic Theology, inflamed by Marxist ideas in the heady excitement of 1968, walked out of lectures shouting ‘Curse Christ! Curse Christ!’ From that time on he has solidified his position as a leading critic of what he saw as the naïve optimism of the 1960s, which had caused many in the church to read Vatican II as a populist moment. His abiding suspicion remains that Vatican II was a plughole through which faith and tradition drained, to be replaced by a liberal Protestant modernity.
Perhaps out of guilt at his own former flirtation with liberalism, for the remainder of his busy career as a bishop Ratzinger dedicated himself to a crusade against subversion by the secular, egalitarian culture of the West. He came to oppose the principle that regional bishops’ conferences might take decisions separately from the Vatican hierarchy. Most conspicuously, he used his position as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to defend the fortress of the Church from the barbarian liberal hordes without. Theologians who, despite the recent lessons of Hitler and Stalin, and the example of materialist secular culture, were influenced by a naïve modern optimism, were reproached, usually in private, but on occasion in the eyes of the world. This is why Küng, after being stripped of his licence to teach as a Catholic theologian, compared Ratzinger’s Congregation to the KGB. Liberation theologians in Latin America were too optimistic about the possibility of successful revolutionary activism on behalf of the poor. Liberals trying to ‘update’ the Church only seemed to do so with reference to a surrounding secular culture of change and triviality. Hence the lethal danger, as Ratzinger saw it, of allowing popular preferences to shape worship. ‘I am convinced,’ he wrote, ‘that the crisis in the church that we are experiencing today is to a large extent due to the disintegration of the liturgy.’
Ratzinger’s idealistic opposition to modernity found expression in the pages of the journal Communio, which he helped to launch in partnership with his friend, the Swiss anti-modernist Hans Urs von Balthasar. Abandoning the unpleasantly liberal atmosphere of Tübingen, he moved in 1968 to Regensburg to launch a new faculty where he energetically trained dozens of neo-conservative thinkers. Many of these, like the American Joseph Fessio, have served as staunch buttresses against the rise of Protestant agendas and modernising tendencies in the church, and were steadily recruited by John Paul II to fill the college of cardinals that one day would elect a new pope.
The theology which Ratzinger championed through this period was not the dusty repetitions of the thirteenth-century monk Thomas Aquinas that had dominated the Catholic world before Vatican II. Neither, however, was it the kind of subjective free-thinking which some feared would result from the Church’s convulsions in the mid-1960s. In common with many Catholics seeking renewal, Ratzinger returned to the fourth-century North African thinker St Augustine, and his medieval interpreter Bonaventure. Crisis, for Ratzinger, was not an excuse for inaction, but for a fearful recollection of human sinfulness; and Augustine and Bonaventure, with their heavy emphasis on original sin, the inherited defect with which they thought all humans are born, have often served as the foundation-stones of attempts to produce Catholic renewal. Ratzinger is certainly convinced of the radical sinfulness of human beings; and it is this conviction which underpins his onslaught on liberalism and liberation theology, and his scepticism about non-Christian religions. Without the sacraments of the Catholic Church, all is implicitly a form of wickedness, although it may contain broken fragments of the truth.
In his understanding of Judaism and Islam, Ratzinger is guided by the same Augustinian pessimism, which he finds ultimately in the letters of St Paul. Rituals ofwudu and ibada are essentially worthless, as they lie outside the grace which is only mediated by God’s one true church. As he writes: ‘the law of Moses, the rituals of purification, the regulations concerning food, and all other such things are not to be carried out by us, otherwise the biblical Word would be senseless and meaningless.’ Such rituals are ‘slavery’, from which submission to the Church alone offers salvation. The Semitic principle is thus categorically inferior; Jews and Muslims, he seems to imply, are slaves, and their ability truly to please God must be Biblically doubted.
But it is not only ‘the Law’ which is ruled by sin; for Ratzinger, sin also dominates modernity, which represents the ‘human threat to all living things.’ It reduces everything, including religion, to blind cause and effect. Hence in modern eyes the Bible is not to be understood as a story leading to a conclusion, each of whose parts can only be read in terms of that conclusion, but as a series of disconnected fragments subjected to arguments over authorship. For the moderns, too, the idea of a medieval consensus as forming part of the sensus fidelium, the view of the community of believers (an idea resembling the Muslim principle of ijma’), is meaningless. But in the Pope’s eyes, the credibility of divine providence is hopelessly undermined by the Protestant idea that most past believers were radically mistaken. And if Catholics retreat from some previous certainties about doctrine and scripture, he believes, then there will inexorably be a retreat from others, until ‘finally, quite a number of people have the abiding impression that the church’s faith is like a jellyfish.’
Like many Muslim and Eastern Orthodox Vatican-watchers, the new Pope regards the Catholic Church as suffering from a deep crisis. Theology, despite attempts at firm control from the centre, has been wandering in the direction of subjectivism. The prohibition of the Tridentine Mass and its replacement with assorted forms of worship in local languages has not only cut congregations off from a source of unity, from centuries of devotion and from a language unpolluted by modernity, but has opened the floodgates to trivial experiments which can make worship resemble a form of entertainment. As he frankly says, ‘One shudders at the lacklustre face of the post-conciliar liturgy as it has become, or one is simply bored with its hankering after banality.’ Sexual abuse by clergy, and subsequent cover-ups by bishops, have gravely damaged the moral authority of the church in many places (two out of every seven graduates of one American seminary have died of AIDS; major newspapers claim that half of American priests are homosexual; several US dioceses have filed for bankruptcy in the face of claims for compensation by molestation victims). In Europe, the number of priests falls by one percent every year. All this amounts, in Ratzinger’s eyes, to ‘a dark and tragic night which has fallen upon the Church.’ ‘Everything,’ he feels, ‘is in a state of disintegration.’
There are Muslims who regard this as an opportunity for Islam; and it is certainly the case that conversions from Catholicism have increased in recent years, although numbers are still small in historic terms. Yet it is far from clear that the ‘crisis’, as the pope sees it, of the West’s most significant moral and spiritual institution, will be helpful to Muslim progress. Europe is sinking into a mood of increasing liberal intolerance of traditional values, as was shown earlier in 2005 when EU commissioner Rocco Buttiglione was forced to resign when he refused to condemn Catholic teachings on homosexuality. If liberalism is excluding religious believers from high office, there is reason to expect that a more thorough-paced persecution will follow, with the hounding of all those whose consciences prevent them from accepting homosexualist, feminist or other liberal beliefs. Ratzinger writes well about the ‘agnosticism which no longer recognises doctrinal norms and is left only with the method of putting things to a practical test.’ While he does not agree with his predecessor, Pope Leo XIII, that the separation of church and state is a heresy, he is clear that the radical indifference of national governments to religiously-grounded morals may result in a slippage into tyranny. Terrorism was invented by the French Revolution; in Bonaparte’s anti-religious empire it became the political norm of the first European Union. The danger is that a deep-seated secular indoctrination of Europe may in the long term produce a similar result. For Ratzinger, as in classical Muslim thought, the religious scholar is not to be the ruler; but neither is the ruler to be immune from counsel by the scholar or from the ethics set forth in revelation. Muslims may be nervous that religious authority in Catholicism is highly centralised and, in principle, monolithic (the point on which classical Muslim and Christian political theory most obviously diverge), but will need to welcome Catholic endeavours to hold rulers accountable to timeless moral absolutes. Catholicism is clear that the separation of church and state does not mean that governments are not allowed to be religious.
Sacred politics is the kind of area in which Ratzinger’s interpretation of Islam will need to be more fully informed. Perhaps assuming that Islam will take as long as Catholicism did to accept the idea of democracy, he is sceptical about the authenticity of popularly accountable government in Muslim societies. Here, again, he would benefit from studying major cases such as Turkey and Indonesia, where Muslim theologians were at the forefront of the democratisation process and of opposition to authoritarian military regimes. There is certainly a difficulty in the idea, implicit in right-wing Catholic discourse, that Islam’s scholars operate in a democratic way to produce political authoritarianism, while the Church operates in an authoritarian way to support the idea and practices of political democracy. A reading of Noah Feldman’s study of Islamic discussions of popular sovereignty, After Jihad, would help the Vatican to resolve this apparent conundrum.
Ratzinger can also seem to be in the grip of a latent contradiction when he considers Islam’s powerfully conservative social instincts. In his book Salt of the Earth(1997) he notes that ‘Islam is opposed to our modern ideas about society;’ yet elsewhere he is famous for his insistence that Catholicism is itself radically opposed to many such ideas, and to the intellectual habits of modernity of which they are the expression. The same tension reappears where he writes, explaining the recent Islamic revival, that ‘in the face of the deep moral contradictions of the West and of its internal helplessness … the Islamic soul reawakened.’ His reluctance to speak at length about Islam, as opposed to holding private sessions with anti-Muslim activists, probably stems from a deep internal ambiguity about a religion which has conserved its liturgy and its family morality intact, which has no significant ‘gay lobby’, which is clear about the nature of men and women, and which reads scripture as an integral and authoritative whole in the way all Christians once did. If, as he suspects, the relativism in Christian theology, liturgy and moral practice which has become so prevalent is a sign of distance from God, then how is one to interpret Islam’s massive success on the same issues? Particularly disturbing, one may guess, is the realisation that whereas Catholic decision-making since the First Vatican Council has been authoritarian and top-down, a method hardly challenged by John Paul II, Islamic ijma’ is a result of egalitarian debate among scholars over centuries of the kind Ratzinger would call ‘congregationalist’; and yet the internal integrity of liturgy and doctrine which an ultramontane, authoritarian church was meant to defend seems to have been better achieved, in many ways, by the apparently chaotic mechanisms of Islam. Catholic intellectuals who, in the wake of René Guénon, have converted to Islam often offer precisely this reason to justify their choice. Could it be that Vatican neoconservatism is hostile to Islam because it is privately impressed by it, not because it is primarily exercised by issues of ‘integration’ and democracy?
If so, we may be able to untangle one of the great mysteries surrounding Ratzinger’s Islam-talk. Rahner and the other script-writers of Vatican II approached Islam in terms of those issues that matter most to Muslims themselves. ‘Upon the Muslims, too, the Church looks with favour,’ they said, and the reasons they gave concerned Islam’s self-identification with Abraham, its reverence for Jesus and Mary, its concern with the Last Judgement, and its life of prayer and fasting. It is noteworthy that Ratzinger has hardly engaged with Islam on these levels, preferring, instead, to pick up the current rhetoric about the ‘crisis of Islam’. This is odd, given that he generally deplores the reduction of religious discussions to issues of sociology and politics. Here, perhaps, is a suggestion that Islam’s intactness is too large a fact for him to be ready to address, although he may well be preparing himself for some future statement.
Whatever the reasons for the new conservatism, Muslims must seek allies. The disliked and impoverished Muslim minorities of Europe, resembling in many ways fugitive monotheists in Roman catacombs, cannot muster the strength to campaign for a greater tolerance of non-liberal values. It is therefore crucial for Muslim communities to forge ties with other defenders of traditional humanity, and to wish them well. The Catholic church differs from Islam on some moral issues, such as contraception and divorce, but generally it advocates the set of ethics which is normal to sacred societies, and which underpinned the greatest cultural achievements of medieval Europe, both Muslim and Christian. Like Islam, it is not only a matter of private faith and worship, but of rules fixed in revelation (the pope has spoken against ‘the view that the Decalogue on which the Church has based her objective morality is nothing but a ‘cultural product’ linked to the ancient Semitic Middle East’). With Ratzinger holding the tiller, the church is unlikely to accept further concessions to the values of the secular establishment, still less to the Jacobin and Hitlerian demand that ‘priests should not meddle in politics’. The challenge will be to convince Muslim communities that it is conservatives, not liberals, who are our most natural partners in the great task of guiding Europe back to God, and that Ratzinger’s criticisms are grounded in respect, perhaps even in something approaching envy; not in any kind of racism or populist chauvinism. Whatever some Muslims may claim, the fact that far-right parties benefit from the new Vatican language about Islam does not mean that the Church is seeking to retrieve its former popularity in Europe by riding the tiger of the new xenophobia.
European Muslims are thus faced with an interesting dilemma. Should we support the Vatican because it advocates those traditional values which are the foundation of social and political stability, and develop the cooperation on social issues that Muslim and Catholic leaders have achieved in the past (the 1994 UN Population Summit was one example)? Such a collaboration might provide support to embattled traditionalists in bodies such as the Church of England, apparently on the brink of validating homosexual practices. This is an attractive notion; yet should we not be wary of a man whose sense of Europe’s true identity substantially excludes us? After all, if Turkey cannot join Europe because of its Muslimness, how far can Turks in Hamburg be accepted as Europeans? Tariq Ramadan has criticised the Pope’s Christian definition of Europe, on the grounds that ‘we must recognise that all the monotheistic faiths are part of Europe’s roots.’ His understandable fear is that Ratzinger’s ideas about Semitic religions will comfort the growing legions of European chauvinists and Islamophobes. However it is by no means clear that a generic monotheism of the kind Ramadan commends will be sufficient to defeat relativism in Europe.
Does this mean that Muslims stand to benefit more in an officially Christian Europe? American Muslims, ruled by an effectively theocratic administration in which presidential speeches are intensely Biblical and the state provides massive funding for Christian social movements (but not Muslim ones) would probably resist this notion. An increasing number of American Catholic bishops denounce the ‘accommodationist’ Catholic politicians who do not follow the Church’s line. Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, for instance, complains that ‘too many American Catholics – maybe most – no longer connect their political choices with their religious faith in any consistent, authentic way.’ Yet a larger alliance between Catholics and the politically-dominant Evangelicals, a scenario sometimes predicted by American Muslims, in reality seems unlikely. Support for a violent response to Saddam Hussein, for instance, was strongest in Bush’s Evangelical constituency; whereas the Catholic bishops opposed it. The theological tensions between the two large sects of American Christianity have been intensified by Dominus Jesus, and the cooperation in issues of religious politics (on the abortion issue, most notably) has probably progressed as far as it can.
Europe cannot be like America; and a strong religious presence here will not have the militaristic consequences which American Muslims have witnessed with such dismay. The Evangelicals in Europe are far weaker, and think differently on political matters. A Europe defined in Christian terms is more likely to take its guidance from Ratzinger than from any reformed thinker (there are few Southern Baptists here, and as for liberal Christian thinkers, these typically do not differ from the secular consensus on moral issues, and are hence irrelevant). Moreover, there is no reason to suppose that the continent’s current coldness towards the claims of Christianity is a permanent condition. The increasing witness of Muslims may ironically trigger a Christian revival, as the Belgian novelist Jacques Neirynck has forecast. In that situation, the continent’s ethico-political domination by the Vatican would probably enhance the sense of security of the majority population, and this can only be in the interests of Muslims, for whom the threat is not the Church, but the far-right movements which may claim Christian principles, but will, we may reasonably hope, always be kept at a firm distance by Curial institutions that can never decisively reject the rulings of Vatican II.
Many Muslims have been uncomfortable with Ratzinger because of his public statements about Islam. Yet we should be wary of emotional responses; and act in our interests, which are also those of a well-integrated, tolerant and successful Europe. Benedict XVI may not quite intend it, but on balance, his policies are likely to be good for Islam.
(Text of a lecture given to a group of Christians in Oxford, 1996)
A number of difficulties will beset any presentation of Muslim understandings of the Trinity. Not the least of these is the fact that these Muslim understandings have been almost as diverse and as numerous as those obtaining among Christian scholars themselves. It is true that medieval Islam knew much more about Christian doctrine than the doctors of the Church did about Islam, for the obvious reason that Muslim societies contained literate minorities with whom one could debate, something which was normally not the case in Christendom. Muslim-Christian dialogue, a novelty in the West, has a long history in the Middle East, going back at least as far as the polite debates between St John of Damascus and the Muslim scholars of seventh-century Syria. And yet reading our theologians one usually concludes that most of them never quite ‘got’ the point about the Trinity. Their analysis can usually be faulted on grounds not of unsophistication, but of insufficient familiarity with the complexities of Scholastic or Eastern trinitarian thinking. Often they merely tilt at windmills.
There were, I think, two reasons for this. Firstly, the doctrine of Trinity was the most notorious point at issue between Christianity and Islam, and hence was freighted with fierce passions. For the pre-modern Muslim mind, Christian invaders, crusaders, inquisitors and the rest were primarily obsessed with forcing the doctrine of Trinity on their hapless Muslim enemies. It is recalled even today among Muslims in Russia that when Ivan the Terrible captured Kazan, capital of the Volga Muslims, he told its people that they could escape the sword by ‘praising with us the Most Blessed Trinity for generation unto generation.’ Even today in Bosnia, Serb irregulars use the three-fingered Trinity salute as a gesture of defiance against their Muslim enemies. And so on. Much Muslim theologising about the Trinity has hence been set in a bitterly polemical context of fear and often outright hatred: the Trinity as the very symbol of the unknown but violent other lurking on the barbarous northern shores of the Mediterranean, scene of every kind of demonic wickedness and cruelty.
To this distortion one has to add, I think, some problems posed by the doctrine of the Trinity itself. Islam, while it has produced great thinkers, has nonetheless put fewer of its epistemological eggs in the theological basket than has Christianity. Reading Muslim presentations of the Trinity one cannot help but detect a sense of impatience. One of the virtues of the Semitic type of consciousness is the conviction that ultimate reality must be ultimately simple, and that the Nicene talk of a deity with three persons, one of whom has two natures, but who are all somehow reducible to authentic unity, quite apart from being rationally dubious, seems intuitively wrong. God, the final ground of all being, surely does not need to be so complicated.
These two obstacles to a correct understanding of the Trinity do to some extent persist even today. But a new obstacle has in the past century or so presented itself inasmuch as the old Western Christian consensus on what the Trinity meant, which was always a fragile consensus, no longer seems to obtain among many serious Christian scholars. Surveying the astonishing bulk and vigour of Christian theological output, Muslims can find it difficult to know precisely how most Christians understand the Trinity. It is also our experience that Christians are usually keener to debate other topics; and we tend to conclude that this is because they themselves are uncomfortable with aspects of their Trinitarian theology.
What I will try to do, then, is to set out my own understanding, as a Muslim, of the Trinitarian doctrine. I would start by making the obvious point that I recognise that a lot is at stake here for historic Christian orthodoxy. The fundamental doctrine of Trinity makes no sense unless the doctrines of incarnation and atonement are also accepted. St Anselm, in his Cur Deus Homo, showed that the concept of atonement demanded that Christ had to be God, since only an infinite sacrifice could atone for the limitless evil of humanity, which was, in Augustine’s words, a massa damnata – a damned mass because of Adam’s original sin. Jesus of Nazareth was hence God incarnate walking on earth, distinct from God the Father dwelling in heaven and hearing our prayers. It thus became necessary to think of God as at least two in one, who were at least for a while existing in heaven and on earth, as distinct entities. In early Christianity, the Logos which was the Christ-spirit believed to be active as a divine presence in human life, in time became hypostatized as a third person, and so the Trinity was born. No doubt this process was shaped by the triadic beliefs which hovered in the Near Eastern air of the time, many of which included the belief in a divine atonement figure.
Now, looking at the evidence for this process, I have to confess I am not a Biblical scholar, armed with the dazzling array of philological qualifications deployed by so many others. But it does seem to me that a consensus has been emerging among serious historians, pre-eminent among whom are figures such as Professor Geza Vermes of Oxford, that Jesus of Nazareth himself never believed, or taught, that he was the second person of a divine trinity. We know that he was intensely conscious of God as a divine and loving Father, and that he dedicated his ministry to proclaiming the imminence of God’s kingdom, and to explaining how human creatures could transform themselves in preparation for that momentous time. He believed himself to be the Messiah, and the ‘son of man’ foretold by the prophets. We know from the study of first-century Judaism, recently made accessible by the Qumran discoveries, that neither of these terms would have been understood as implying divinity: they merely denoted purified servants of God.
The term ‘son of God’, frequently invoked in patristic and medieval thinking to prop up the doctrine of Jesus’s divinity, was in fact similarly unpersuasive: in the Old Testament and in wider Near Eastern usage it can be applied to kings, pharoahs, miracle workers and others. Yet when St Paul carried his version of the Christian message beyond Jewish boundaries into the wider gentile world, this image of Christ’s sonship was interpreted not metaphorically, but metaphysically. The resultant tale of controversies, anathemas and political interventions is complex; but what is clear is that the Hellenized Christ, who in one nature was of one substance with God, and in another nature was of one substance with humanity, bore no significant resemblance to the ascetic prophet who had walked the roads of Galilee some three centuries before.
From the Muslim viewpoint, this desemiticising of Jesus was a catastrophe. Three centuries after Nicea, the Quran stated:
‘The Messiah, son of Mary, was no other than a messenger, messengers the like of whom had passed away before him . . . O people of the Book – stress not in your religion other than the truth, and follow not the vain desires of a people who went astray before you.’ (Surat al-Ma’ida, 75)
‘O people of the Scripture! Do not exaggerate in your religion, nor utter anything concerning God save the truth. The Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, was only a messenger of God, and His word which He conveyed unto Mary, and a spirit from Him. So believe in God and His messengers, and do not say ‘Three’. Desist, it will be better for you. God is only One God. . . . The Messiah would never have scorned to be a slave of God.’ (Surat al-Nisa, 171-2)
The Qur’anic term for ‘exaggeration’ used here, ghuluww, became a standard term in Muslim heresiography for any tendency, Muslim or otherwise, which attributed divinity to a revered and charismatic figure. We are told that during the life of the Prophet’s son-in-law Ali, a few of his devoted followers from Iraq, where Hellenistic and pagan cultures formed the background of many converts, described him as God, or the vehicle of a Divine incarnation – hulul. The claim of course irritated Ali profoundly, and he banished those who made it from his sight; but even today marginal Islamic sectaries like the Kizilbash of Turkey, or the Alawites of the Syrian mountains, maintain an esoteric cosmology which asserts that God became incarnate in Ali, and then in the succession of Imams who descended from him.
Mainstream Islam, however, despite its rapid spread over non-Semitic populations, never succumbed to this temptation. The best-known of all devotional poems about the Blessed Prophet Muhammad: the famous Mantle Ode of al-Busairi, defines the frontier of acceptable veneration:
‘Renounce what the Christians claim concerning their prophet,
Then praise him as you will, and with all your heart.
For although he was of human nature,
He was the best of humanity without exception.’
A few years previously, the twelfth-century theologian Al-Ghazali had summed up the dangers of ghuluww when he wrote that the Christians had been so dazzled by the divine light reflected in the mirror like heart of Jesus, that they mistook the mirror for the light itself, and worshipped it. But what was happening to Jesus was not categorically distinct from what happened, and may continue to happen, to any purified human soul that has attained the rank of sainthood. The presence of divine light in Jesus’ heart does not logically entail a doctrine of Jesus’ primordial existence as a hypostasis in a divine trinity.
There are other implications of Trinitarian doctrine which concern Muslims. Perhaps one should briefly mention our worries about the doctrine of Atonement, which implies that God is only capable of really forgiving us when Jesus has borne our just punishment by dying on the cross. John Hick has remarked that ‘a forgiveness that has to be bought by full payment of the moral debt is not in fact forgiveness at all.’ More coherent, surely, is the teaching of Jesus himself in the parable of the prodigal son, who is fully forgiven by his father despite the absence of a blood sacrifice to appease his sense of justice. The Lord’s Prayer, that superb petition for forgiveness, nowhere implies the need for atonement or redemption.
Jesus’ own doctrine of God’s forgiveness as recorded in the Gospels is in fact entirely intelligible in terms of Old Testament and Islamic conceptions. ‘God can forgive all sins’, says the Quran. And in a well-known hadith of the Prophet we are told:
On the Day of Judgement, a herald angel shall cry out [God’s word] from beneath the Throne, saying: ‘O nation of Muhammad! All that was due to me from you I forgive you now, and only the rights which you owed one another remain. Thus forgive one another, and enter Heaven through My Mercy.’
And in a famous incident:
It is related that a boy was standing under the sun on a hot summer’s day. He was seen by a woman concealed among the people, who made her way forwards vigorously until she took up the child and clutched him to her breast. Then she turned her back to the valley to keep the heat away from him, saying, ‘My son! My son!’ At this the people wept, and were distracted from everything that they were doing. Then the Messenger of God, upon whom be peace, came up. They told him of what had happened, when he was delighted to see their their compassion. Then he gave them glad news, saying: ‘Marvel you at this woman’s compassion for her son?’ and they said that they did. And he declared, ‘Truly, the Exalted God shall be even more compassionate towards you than is this woman towards her son.’ At this, the Muslims went their ways in the greatest rapture and joy.
This same hadith presents an interesting feature of Muslim assumptions about the divine forgiveness: its apparently ‘maternal’ aspect. The term for the Compassionate and Loving God used in these reports, al-Rahman, was said by the Prophet himself to derive from rahim, meaning a womb. Some recent Muslim reflection has seen in this, more or less rightly I think, a reminder that God has attributes which may metaphorically be associated with a ‘feminine, maternal’ character, as well as the more ‘masculine’ predicates such as strength and implacable justice. This point is just beginning to be picked up by our theologians. There is not time to explore the matter fully, but there is a definite and interesting convergence between the Christology of feminist theologians such as Rosemary Reuther, and that of Muslims.
In a recent work, the Jordanian theologian Hasan al-Saqqaf reaffirms the orthodox belief that God transcends gender, and cannot be spoken of as male or female, although His attributes manifest either male or female properties, with neither appearing to be preponderant. This gender-neutral understanding of the Godhead has figured largely in Karen Armstrong’s various appreciations of Islam, and is beginning to be realised by other feminist thinkers as well. For instance, Maura O’Neill in a recent book observes that ‘Muslims do not use a masculine God as either a conscious or unconscious tool in the construction of gender roles.’
One of Reuther’s own main objections to the Trinity, apart from its historically and Biblically sketchy foundations, is its emphatic attribution of masculine gender to God. She may or may not be exaggerating when she blames this attribution for the indignities suffered by Christian women down the ages. But she is surely being reasonable when she suggests that the male-dominated Trinity is marginalising to women, as it suggests that it was man who was made in the image of God, with woman as a revised and less theomorphic model of himself.
Partly under her influence, American Protestant liturgy has increasingly tried to de-masculinise the Trinity. Inclusive language lectionaries now refer to God as ‘Father and Mother’. The word for Christ’s relationship to God is now not ‘son’ but ‘child’. And so on, often to the point of absurdity or straightforward doctrinal mutilation.
Here in Britain, the feminist bull was grasped by the horns when the BCC Study Commission on Trinitarian Doctrine Today issued its report in 1989. The Commission’s response here was as follows:
‘The word Father is to be construed apophatically, that is, by means of a determined ‘thinking away’ of the inappropriate – and in this context that means masculine – connotations of the term. What will remain will be an orientation to personhood, to being in relation involving origination in a personal sense, not maleness.’
Now, one has to say that this is unsatisfactory. The concept of fatherhood, stripped of everything which has male associations, is not fatherhood at all. It is not even parenthood, since parenthood has only two modalities. The Commissioners are simply engaging in the latest exegetical manoeuvres required by the impossible Trinitarian doctrine, which are, as John Biddle, the father of Unitarianism put it, ‘fitter for conjurers than for Christians.’
The final point that occurs to me is that the Trinity, mapped out in awesome detail in the several volumes devoted to it by Aquinas, attempts to presume too much about the inner nature of God. I mentioned earlier that Islam has historically been more sceptical of philosophical theology as a path to God than has Christianity, and in fact the divine unity has been affirmed by Muslims on the basis of two supra-rational sources: the revelation of the Quran, and the unitive experience of the mystics and the saints. That God is ultimately One, and indivisible, is the conclusion of all higher mysticism, and Islam, as a religion of the divine unity par excellence, has linked faith with mystical experience very closely. An eighteenth century Bosnian mystic, Hasan Kaimi, expressed this in a poem which even today is chanted and loved by the people of Sarajevo:
O seeker of truth, it is your heart’s eye you must open.
Know the Divine Unity today, through the path of love for Him.
If you object: ‘I am waiting for my mind to grasp His nature’,
Know the Divine Unity today, through the path of love for Him.Should you wish to behold the visage of God,
Surrender to Him, and invoke His names,
When your soul is clear a light of true joy shall shine.
Know the Divine Unity today, through the path of love for Him.
In the name of Allah, Most Merciful and Compassionate
Born in 1954 in the farm country of the northwestern United States, I was raised in a religious family as a Roman Catholic. The Church provided a spiritual world that was unquestionable in my childhood, if anything more real than the physical world around me, but as I grew older, and especially after I entered a Catholic university and read more, my relation to the religion became increasingly called into question, in belief and practice.
One reason was the frequent changes in Catholic liturgy and ritual that occurred in the wake of the Second Vatican Council of 1963, suggesting to laymen that the Church had no firm standards. To one another, the clergy spoke about flexibility and liturgical relevance, but to ordinary Catholics they seemed to be groping in the dark. God does not change, nor the needs of the human soul, and there was no new revelation from heaven. Yet we rang in the changes, week after week, year after year; adding, subtracting, changing the language from Latin to English, finally bringing in guitars and folk music. Priests explained and explained as laymen shook their heads. The search for relevance left large numbers convinced that there had not been much in the first place.
A second reason was a number of doctrinal difficulties, such as the doctrine of the Trinity, which no one in the history of the world, neither priest nor layman, had been able to explain in a convincing way, and which resolved itself, to the common mind at least, in a sort of godhead-by-committee, shared between God the Father, who ruled the world from heaven; His son Jesus Christ, who saved humanity on earth; and the Holy Ghost, who was pictured as a white dove and appeared to have a considerably minor role. I remember wanting to make special friends with just one of them so he could handle my business with the others, and to this end, would sometimes pray earnestly to this one and sometimes to that; but the other two were always stubbornly there. I finally decided that God the Father must be in charge of the other two, and this put the most formidable obstacle in the way of my Catholicism, the divinity of Christ. Moreover, reflection made it plain that the nature of man contradicted the nature of God in every particular, the limitary and finite on the one hand, the absolute and infinite on the other. That Jesus was God was something I cannot remember having ever really believed, in childhood or later.
Another point of incredulity was the trading of the Church in stocks and bonds in the hereafter it called indulgences. Do such and such and so-and-so many years will be remitted from your sentence in purgatory that had seemed so false to Martin Luther at the outset of the Reformation.
I also remember a desire for a sacred scripture, something on the order of a book that could furnish guidance. A Bible was given to me one Christmas, a handsome edition, but on attempting to read it, I found it so rambling and devoid of a coherent thread that it was difficult to think of a way to base one’s life upon it. Only later did I learn how Christians solve the difficulty in practice, Protestants by creating sectarian theologies, each emphasizing the texts of their sect and downplaying the rest; Catholics by downplaying it all, except the snippets mentioned in their liturgy. Something seemed lacking in a sacred book that could not be read as an integral whole.
Moreover, when I went to the university, I found that the authenticity of the book, especially the New Testament, had come into considerable doubt as a result of modern hermeneutical studies by Christians themselves. In a course on contemporary theology, I read the Norman Perrin translation of The Problem of the Historical Jesus by Joachim Jeremias, one of the principal New Testament scholars of this century. A textual critic who was a master of the original languages and had spent long years with the texts, he had finally agreed with the German theologian Rudolph Bultmann that without a doubt it is true to say that the dream of ever writing a biography of Jesus is over, meaning that the life of Christ as he actually lived it could not be reconstructed from the New Testament with any degree of confidence. If this were accepted from a friend of Christianity and one of its foremost textual experts, I reasoned, what was left for its enemies to say? And what then remained of the Bible except to acknowledge that it was a record of truths mixed with fictions, conjectures projected onto Christ by later followers, themselves at odds with each other as to who the master had been and what he had taught. And if theologians like Jeremias could reassure themselves that somewhere under the layers of later accretions to the New Testament there was something called the historical Jesus and his message, how could the ordinary person hope to find it, or know it, should it be found?
I studied philosophy at the university and it taught me to ask two things of whoever claimed to have the truth: What do you mean, and how do you know? When I asked these questions of my own religious tradition, I found no answers, and realized that Christianity had slipped from my hands. I then embarked on a search that is perhaps not unfamiliar to many young people in the West, a quest for meaning in a meaningless world.
I began where I had lost my previous belief, with the philosophers, yet wanting to believe, seeking not philosophy, but rather a philosophy.
I read the essays of the great pessimist Arthur Schopenhauer, which taught about the phenomenon of the ages of life, and that money, fame, physical strength, and intelligence all passed from one with the passage of years, but only moral excellence remained. I took this lesson to heart and remembered it in after years. His essays also drew attention to the fact that a person was wont to repudiate in later years what he fervently espouses in the heat of youth. With a prescient wish to find the Divine, I decided to imbue myself with the most cogent arguments of atheism that I could find, that perhaps I might find a way out of them later. So I read the Walter Kaufmann translations of the works of the immoralist Friedrich Nietzsche. The many-faceted genius dissected the moral judgments and beliefs of mankind with brilliant philological and psychological arguments that ended in accusing human language itself, and the language of nineteenth-century science in particular, of being so inherently determined and mediated by concepts inherited from the language of morality that in their present form they could never hope to uncover reality. Aside from their immunological value against total skepticism, Nietzsche’s works explained why the West was post-Christian, and accurately predicted the unprecedented savagery of the twentieth century, debunking the myth that science could function as a moral replacement for the now dead religion.
At a personal level, his tirades against Christianity, particularly in The Genealogy of Morals, gave me the benefit of distilling the beliefs of the monotheistic tradition into a small number of analyzable forms. He separated unessential concepts (such as the bizarre spectacle of an omnipotent deitys suicide on the cross) from essential ones, which I now, though without believing in them, apprehended to be but three alone: that God existed; that He created man in the world and defined the conduct expected of him in it; and that He would judge man accordingly in the hereafter and send him to eternal reward or punishment.
It was during this time that I read an early translation of the Qur’an which I grudgingly admired, between agnostic reservations, for the purity with which it presented these fundamental concepts. Even if false, I thought, there could not be a more essential expression of religion. As a literary work, the translation, perhaps it was Sales, was uninspired and openly hostile to its subject matter, whereas I knew the Arabic original was widely acknowledged for its beauty and eloquence among the religious books of mankind. I felt a desire to learn Arabic to read the original.
On a vacation home from school, I was walking upon a dirt road between some fields of wheat, and it happened that the sun went down. By some inspiration, I realized that it was a time of worship, a time to bow and pray to the one God. But it was not something one could rely on oneself to provide the details of, but rather a passing fancy, or perhaps the beginning of an awareness that atheism was an inauthentic way of being.
I carried something of this disquiet with me when I transferred to the University of Chicago, where I studied the epistemology of ethical theory how moral judgments were reached reading and searching among the books of the philosophers for something to shed light on the question of meaninglessness, which was both a personal concern and one of the central philosophical problems of our age.
According to some, scientific observation could only yield description statements of the form X is Y, for example, The object is red, Its weight is two kilos, Its height is ten centimeters, and so on, in each of which the functional was a scientifically verifiable is, whereas in moral judgments the functional element was an ought, a description statement which no amount of scientific observation could measure or verify. It appeared that ought was logically meaningless, and with it all morality whatsoever, a position that reminded me of those described by Lucian in his advice that whoever sees a moral philosopher coming down the road should flee from him as from a mad dog. For such a person, expediency ruled, and nothing checked his behavior but convention.
As Chicago was a more expensive school, and I had to raise tuition money, I found summer work on the West Coast with a seining boat fishing in Alaska. The sea proved a school in its own right, one I was to return to for a space of eight seasons, for the money. I met many people on boats, and saw something of the power and greatness of the wind, water, storms, and rain; and the smallness of man. These things lay before us like an immense book, but my fellow fishermen and I could only discern the letters of it that were within our context: to catch as many fish as possible within the specified time to sell to the tenders. Few knew how to read the book as a whole. Sometimes, in a blow, the waves rose like great hills, and the captain would hold the wheel with white knuckles, our bow one minute plunging gigantically down into a valley of green water, the next moment reaching the bottom of the trough and soaring upwards towards the sky before topping the next crest and starting down again.
Early in my career as a deck hand, I had read the Hazel Barnes translation of Jean Paul Sartres “Being and Nothingness”, in which he argued that phenomena only arose for consciousness in the existential context of human projects, a theme that recalled Marx’s 1844 manuscripts, where nature was produced by man, meaning, for example, that when the mystic sees a stand of trees, his consciousness hypostatizes an entirely different phenomenal object than a poet does, for example, or a capitalist. To the mystic, it is a manifestation; to the poet, a forest; to the capitalist, lumber. According to such a perspective, a mountain only appears as tall in the context of the project of climbing it, and so on, according to the instrumental relations involved in various human interests. But the great natural events of the sea surrounding us seemed to defy, with their stubborn, irreducible facticity, our uncomprehending attempts to come to terms with them. Suddenly, we were just there, shaken by the forces around us without making sense of them, wondering if we would make it through. Some, it was true, would ask Gods help at such moments, but when we returned safely to shore, we behaved like men who knew little of Him, as if those moments had been a lapse into insanity, embarrassing to think of at happier times. It was one of the lessons of the sea that in fact, such events not only existed but perhaps even preponderated in our life. Man was small and weak, the forces around him were large, and he did not control them.
Sometimes a boat would sink and men would die. I remember a fisherman from another boat who was working near us one opening, doing the same job as I did, piling web. He smiled across the water as he pulled the net from the hydraulic block overhead, stacking it neatly on the stern to ready it for the next set. Some weeks later, his boat overturned while fishing in a storm, and he got caught in the web and drowned. I saw him only once again, in a dream, beckoning to me from the stern of his boat.
The tremendousness of the scenes we lived in, the storms, the towering sheer cliffs rising vertically out of the water for hundreds of feet, the cold and rain and fatigue, the occasional injuries and deaths of workers these made little impression on most of us. Fishermen were, after all, supposed to be tough. On one boat, the family that worked it was said to lose an occasional crew member while running at sea at the end of the season, invariably the sole non-family member who worked with them, his loss saving them the wages they would have otherwise had to pay him.
The captain of another was a twenty-seven-year-old who delivered millions of dollars worth of crab each year in the Bering Sea. When I first heard of him, we were in Kodiak, his boat at the city dock they had tied up to after a lengthy run some days before. The captain was presently indisposed in his bunk in the stateroom, where he had been vomiting up blood from having eaten a glass uptown the previous night to prove how tough he was.
He was in somewhat better condition when I later saw him in the Bering Sea at the end of a long winter king crab season. He worked in his wheelhouse up top, surrounded by radios that could pull in a signal from just about anywhere, computers, Loran, sonar, depth-finders, radar. His panels of lights and switches were set below the 180-degree sweep of shatterproof windows that overlooked the sea and the men on deck below, to whom he communicated by loudspeaker. They often worked round the clock, pulling their gear up from the icy water under watchful batteries of enormous electric lights attached to the masts that turned the perpetual night of the winter months into day. The captain had a reputation as a screamer, and had once locked his crew out on deck in the rain for eleven hours because one of them had gone inside to have a cup of coffee without permission. Few crewmen lasted longer than a season with him, though they made nearly twice the yearly income of, say, a lawyer or an advertising executive, and in only six months. Fortunes were made in the Bering Sea in those years, before overfishing wiped out the crab.
At present, he was at anchor, and was amiable enough when we tied up to him and he came aboard to sit and talk with our own captain. They spoke at length, at times gazing thoughtfully out at the sea through the door or windows, at times looking at each other sharply when something animated them, as the topic of what his competitors thought of him. “They wonder why I have a few bucks”, he said. “Well I slept in my own home one night last year.”
He later had his crew throw off the lines and pick the anchor, his eyes flickering warily over the water from the windows of the house as he pulled away with a blast of smoke from the stack. His watchfulness, his walrus-like physique, his endless voyages after game and markets, reminded me of other predatory hunter-animals of the sea. Such people, good at making money but heedless of any ultimate end or purpose, made an impression on me, and I increasingly began to wonder if men didn’t need principles to guide them and tell them why they were there. Without such principles, nothing seemed to distinguish us above our prey except being more thorough, and technologically capable of preying longer, on a vaster scale, and with greater devastation than the animals we hunted.
These considerations were in my mind the second year I studied at Chicago, where I became aware through studies of philosophical moral systems that philosophy had not been successful in the past at significantly influencing peoples morals and preventing injustice, and I came to realize that there was little hope for it to do so in the future. I found that comparing human cultural systems and societies in their historical succession and multiplicity had led many intellectuals to moral relativism, since no moral value could be discovered which on its own merits was transculturally valid, a reflection leading to nihilism, the perspective that sees human civilizations as plants that grow out of the earth, springing from their various seeds and soils, thriving for a time, and then dying away.
Some heralded this as intellectual liberation, among them Emile Durkheim in his “Elementary Forms of the Religious Life”, or Sigmund Freud in his “Totem and Taboo”, which discussed mankind as if it were a patient and diagnosed its religious traditions as a form of a collective neurosis that we could now hope to cure, by applying to them a thoroughgoing scientific atheism, a sort of salvation through pure science.
On this subject, I bought the Jeremy Shapiro translation of “Knowledge and Human Interests” by Jurgen Habermas, who argued that there was no such thing as pure science that could be depended upon to forge boldly ahead in a steady improvement of itself and the world. He called such a misunderstanding scientism, not science. Science in the real world, he said, was not free of values, still less of interests. The kinds of research that obtain funding, for example, were a function of what their society deemed meaningful, expedient, profitable, or important. Habermas had been of a generation of German academics who, during the thirties and forties, knew what was happening in their country, but insisted they were simply engaged in intellectual production, that they were living in the realm of scholarship, and need not concern themselves with whatever the state might choose to do with their research. The horrible question mark that was attached to German intellectuals when the Nazi atrocities became public after the war made Habermas think deeply about the ideology of pure science. If anything was obvious, it was that the nineteenth-century optimism of thinkers like Freud and Durkheim was no longer tenable.
I began to re-assess the intellectual life around me. Like Schopenhauer, I felt that higher education must produce higher human beings. But at the university, I found lab people talking to each other about forging research data to secure funding for the coming year; luminaries who wouldn’t permit tape recorders at their lectures for fear that competitors in the same field would go one step further with their research and beat them to publication; professors vying with each other in the length of their courses syllabuses. The moral qualities I was accustomed to associate with ordinary, unregenerate humanity seemed as frequently met with in sophisticated academics as they had been in fishermen. If one could laugh at fishermen who, after getting a boatload of fish in a big catch, would cruise back and forth in front of the others to let them see how laden down in the water they were, ostensibly looking for more fish; what could one say about the Ph.D.’s who behaved the same way about their books and articles? I felt that their knowledge had not developed their persons, that the secret of higher man did not lie in their sophistication.
I wondered if I hadn’t gone down the road of philosophy as far as one could go. While it had debunked my Christianity and provided some genuine insights, it had not yet answered the big questions. Moreover, I felt that this was somehow connected I didn’t know whether as cause or effect to the fact that our intellectual tradition no longer seemed to seriously comprehend itself. What were any of us, whether philosophers, fishermen, garbagemen, or kings, except bit players in a drama we did not understand, diligently playing out our roles until our replacements were sent, and we gave our last performance? But could one legitimately hope for more than this? I read “Kojves Introduction to the Reading of Hegel”, in which he explained that for Hegel, philosophy did not culminate in the system, but rather in the Wise Man, someone able to answer any possible question on the ethical implications of human actions. This made me consider our own plight in the twentieth century, which could no longer answer a single ethical question.
It was thus as if this century’s unparalleled mastery of concrete things had somehow ended by making us things. I contrasted this with Hegel’s concept of the concrete in his “Phenomenology of Mind”. An example of the abstract, in his terms, was the limitary physical reality of the book now held in your hands, while the concrete was its interconnection with the larger realities it presupposed, the modes of production that determined the kind of ink and paper in it, the aesthetic standards that dictated its color and design, the systems of marketing and distribution that had carried it to the reader, the historical circumstances that had brought about the readers literacy and taste; the cultural events that had mediated its style and usage; in short, the bigger picture in which it was articulated and had its being. For Hegel, the movement of philosophical investigation always led from the abstract to the concrete, to the more real. He was therefore able to say that philosophy necessarily led to theology, whose object was the ultimately real, the Deity. This seemed to me to point up an irreducible lack in our century. I began to wonder if, by materializing our culture and our past, we had not somehow abstracted ourselves from our wider humanity, from our true nature in relation to a higher reality.
At this juncture, I read a number of works on Islam, among them the books of Seyyed Hossein Nasr, who believed that many of the problems of western man, especially those of the environment, were from his having left the divine wisdom of revealed religion, which taught him his true place as a creature of God in the natural world and to understand and respect it. Without it, he burned up and consumed nature with ever more effective technological styles of commercial exploitation that ruined his world from without while leaving him increasingly empty within, because he did not know why he existed or to what end he should act.
I reflected that this might be true as far as it went, but it begged the question as to the truth of revealed religion. Everything on the face of the earth, all moral and religious systems, were on the same plane, unless one could gain certainty that one of them was from a higher source, the sole guarantee of the objectivity, the whole force, of moral law. Otherwise, one man’s opinion was as good as another’s, and we remained in an undifferentiated sea of conflicting individual interests, in which no valid objection could be raised to the strong eating the weak.
I read other books on Islam, and came across some passages translated by W. Montgomery Watt from “That Which Delivers from Error” by the theologian and mystic Ghazali, who, after a mid-life crises of questioning and doubt, realized that beyond the light of prophetic revelation there is no other light on the face of the earth from which illumination may be received, the very point to which my philosophical inquiries had led. Here was, in Hegel’s terms, the Wise Man, in the person of a divinely inspired messenger who alone had the authority to answer questions of good and evil.
I also read A.J. Arberrys translation “The Qur’an Interpreted”, and I recalled my early wish for a sacred book. Even in translation, the superiority of the Muslim scripture over the Bible was evident in every line, as if the reality of divine revelation, dimly heard of all my life, had now been placed before my eyes. In its exalted style, its power, its inexorable finality, its uncanny way of anticipating the arguments of the atheistic heart in advance and answering them; it was a clear exposition of God as God and man as man, the revelation of the awe-inspiring Divine Unity being the identical revelation of social and economic justice among men.
I began to learn Arabic at Chicago, and after studying the grammar for a year with a fair degree of success, decided to take a leave of absence to try to advance in the language in a year of private study in Cairo. Too, a desire for new horizons drew me, and after a third season of fishing, I went to the Middle East.
In Egypt, I found something I believe brings many to Islam, namely, the mark of pure monotheism upon its followers, which struck me as more profound than anything I had previously encountered. I met many Muslims in Egypt, good and bad, but all influenced by the teachings of their Book to a greater extent than I had ever seen elsewhere. It has been some fifteen years since then, and I cannot remember them all, or even most of them, but perhaps the ones I can recall will serve to illustrate the impressions made.
One was a man on the side of the Nile near the Miqyas Gardens, where I used to walk. I came upon him praying on a piece of cardboard, facing across the water. I started to pass in front of him, but suddenly checked myself and walked around behind, not wanting to disturb him. As I watched a moment before going my way, I beheld a man absorbed in his relation to God, oblivious to my presence, much less my opinions about him or his religion. To my mind, there was something magnificently detached about this, altogether strange for someone coming from the West, where praying in public was virtually the only thing that remained obscene.
Another was a young boy from secondary school who greeted me near Khan al-Khalili, and because I spoke some Arabic and he spoke some English and wanted to tell me about Islam, he walked with me several miles across town to Giza, explaining as much as he could. When we parted, I think he said a prayer that I might become Muslim.
Another was a Yemeni friend living in Cairo who brought me a copy of the Qur’an at my request to help me learn Arabic. I did not have a table beside the chair where I used to sit and read in my hotel room, and it was my custom to stack the books on the floor. When I set the Qur’an by the others there, he silently stooped and picked it up, out of respect for it. This impressed me because I knew he was not religious, but here was the effect of Islam upon him.
Another was a woman I met while walking beside a bicycle on an unpaved road on the opposite side of the Nile from Luxor. I was dusty, and somewhat shabbily clothed, and she was an old woman dressed in black from head to toe who walked up, and without a word or glance at me, pressed a coin into my hand so suddenly that in my surprise I dropped it. By the time I picked it up, she had hurried away. Because she thought I was poor, even if obviously non-Muslim, she gave me some money without any expectation for it except what was between her and her God. This act made me think a lot about Islam, because nothing seemed to have motivated her but that.
Many other things passed through my mind during the months I stayed in Egypt to learn Arabic. I found myself thinking that a man must have some sort of religion, and I was more impressed by the effect of Islam on the lives of Muslims, a certain nobility of purpose and largesse of soul, than I had ever been by any other religions or even atheisms effect on its followers. The Muslims seemed to have more than we did.
Christianity had its good points to be sure, but they seemed mixed with confusions, and I found myself more and more inclined to look to Islam for their fullest and most perfect expression. The first question we had memorized from our early catechism had been Why were you created? to which the correct answer was To know, love, and serve God. When I reflected on those around me, I realized that Islam seemed to furnish the most comprehensive and understandable way to practice this on a daily basis.
As for the inglorious political fortunes of the Muslims today, I did not feel these to be a reproach against Islam, or to relegate it to an inferior position in a natural order of world ideologies, but rather saw them as a low phase in a larger cycle of history. Foreign hegemony over Muslim lands had been witnessed before in the thorough going destruction of Islamic civilization in the thirteenth century by the Mongol horde, who razed cities and built pyramids of human heads from the steppes of Central Asia to the Muslim heartlands, after which the fullness of destiny brought forth the Ottoman Empire to raise the Word of Allah and make it a vibrant political reality that endured for centuries. It was now, I reflected, merely the turn of contemporary Muslims to strive for a new historic crystallization of Islam, something one might well aspire to share in.
When a friend in Cairo one day asked me, Why don’t you become a Muslim?, I found that Allah had created within me a desire to belong to this religion, which so enriches its followers, from the simplest hearts to the most magisterial intellects. It is not through an act of the mind or will that anyone becomes a Muslim, but rather through the mercy of Allah, and this, in the final analysis, was what brought me to Islam in Cairo in 1977.
Is it not time that the hearts of those who believe should be humbled to the Remembrance of God and the Truth which He has sent down, and that they should not be as those to whom the Book was given aforetime, and the term seemed over long to them, so that their hearts have become hard, and many of them are ungodly? Know that God revives the earth after it was dead. We have indeed made clear for you the signs, that haply you will understand. (Qur’an 57:16-17)