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.