Issue 48, December 2006

Pope Benedict XVI’s comments on Islam in Regensburg:
A Muslim response
A. Rashied Omar

I would like to begin with an apology. I would like apologize to my Catholic brothers and sisters for the undignified and deplorable manner in which some of my co-religionists have responded to the comments on Islam of His Holiness, Pope Benedict XVI, during his lecture at the University of Regensburg, Germany on September 12, 2006.

I condemn the killing of an Italian nun and her bodyguard in Somalia and the firebombing attacks on churches in the West Bank and Gaza. The cowardly and senseless gunning down of Sister Leonella Sgorbati and her Somalian bodyguard, and the desecration of churches in Palestine are abominations that clearly violate Islamic ethics which call for respect for the sanctity of life, the holiness of all places of worship and for dignified responses to hurtful remarks (Qur’an 24:55).

It is heartening to learn that some Muslim organizations in the United States are raising funds to repair the destruction to the churches, and the Hamas prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, Ismail Haniya, had also unequivocally condemned the attack on churches. A similar condemnation of the killing of Sister Sgorbati was issued by the Union of Islamic Courts in Somalia and they claim to have arrested a suspect.

We are living in volatile and distressing times and Muslims must not become weary of saying over and over again, loudly and unequivocally, that violence and hatred is contrary to the teachings of Islam. And the news media must be responsible enough to make sure our voices are heard.

I welcome Pope Benedict’s invitation to engage in a dialogue about the critical issues on faith and reason that he has raised during his lecture at the University of Regensburg. It is within this spirit of a rational and respectful dialogue of cultures and religions called for by Pope Benedict that I offer the following responses to his comments on Islam.

The chief focus of the Pope’s Regensburg academic lecture was not Islam: rather, it was aimed at the Western academy and the trajectory of the Western intellectual tradition. The Pope’s main argument was that those versions of the Christian faith that have embraced Greek philosophy and thus compatible with reason should not be marginalized but ought to have a central place in the Western academy. The Pope was therefore not referring primarily to Islam but rather criticizing the Western academy for having divorced itself from divine reason. This central thesis could have been satisfactorily argued without reference to Islam.

The intriguing questions then remains: Why did Pope Benedict choose to make comments on Islam in his Regensburg lecture? What purpose did the Paleologus quote serve within the overall argument of his lecture?

We cannot know the mind of another speaker in terms of motivations to include or not include this or that in a speech. Moreover, reading the mind of a Pope is an especially risky business – even more perilous if done by a non-Catholic! What we can legitimately analyze, however, is the function served by certain remarks within the logic of the speech, and the outcome of the speech as a whole within the social, cultural, and political context of the times.

In my reading the reference to Islam in the Regensburg lecture is not coincidental. Rather it serves to support a subsidiary thesis advanced by Pope Benedict. God in Muslim belief, according to the Pope, was “absolutely transcendent.” Such an utterly transcendental Muslim God is not therefore “bound up with any of our categories even that of rationality.” Muslims, so the sub-text of this argument goes, do not believe in a God who embraces human categories – reason and rationality among them.

A fair inference is that Islam is at base irrational, which would explain why it seems so unreasonable to its contemporary detractors. In short, the Pope seems to be saying, there are theological foundations for the propensity of Muslims towards violence and forced or coerced conversions.

The implications of this argument are alarming. For what Pope Benedict seems to suggest is that the categories “Christianity” and “Islam” are mutually exclusive. In other words, reason and rationality can have no place in Islam, whereas they are primary to and in fact pervade Christianity. Please forgive me, but to Muslim ears this smacks of triumphalism.

Sometimes people try to bolster their own positions without providing an argument, but by merely casting their adversaries in a negative light. I think this is how the use of the Paleologus quotation played out in the view of Muslim scholars.

Within this context then the citation from Paleologus makes good sense. It is not irrelevant but central to Pope Benedict’s thesis on Islam. The Paleologus citation is a platform for the rest of the argument. If I am reading the Pope’s view correctly, it makes for a very honest point of conversation, but one that is fraught with risks. Since this position also involves misrepresentations of Islamic doctrine, the venue and timing of such dialogue is critical. While the speech was delivered at a university, its publicity took it outside the cerebral corridors of academia and into a tense and poisoned world of politics and anxiety.

But how does Pope Benedict arrive at his conclusions?

Using the Paleologus citation as a springboard, Pope Benedict develops an overly simplistic picture of the complex and diverse Muslim theologies on the nature of God. Rather than take account of the diverse and often competing traditions the Pope selectively retrieved from a vast Muslim theological tradition one viewpoint, thereby reducing Islam to one voice of a multi-vocal, centuries-long internal argument.

Specifically, the Pope Benedict invokes the German professor Theodore Khoury who in turn uses the French Scholar, Roger Analdez’s interpretation of an eleventh century Spanish Muslim scholar Abu Muhammad `Ali Ibn Hazm’s (994 - 1064 C.E.) theology of God: “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 you. Were it God’s will, we would even have to practice idolatry.” Pope Benedict used this isolated quote to illustrate his point that Islam, because of its utter transcendentalism, is beyond the realm of the rational.

The question then arises: Is this an accurate depiction of classical or contemporary Muslim theologies of God?

With due respect to the considerable erudition of Pope Benedict, his portrayal of Muslim theology is woefully inaccurate. Quite to the contrary of what the Pope asserts, from its very beginning in the seventh century, Muslim theology was comprised of various contending schools. A recurrent theme in the classical Muslim literature is the struggle of reconciling the notion of a transcendent God, whose likeness is unrivalled, with that of an immanent God who in the words of the Qur’an is closer to us than our jugular vein (50:16). The varied Muslim responses to this challenge have spawned a number of different theological trends, such as the ultra rationalists, the M`utazili, the Ash`ari and the Maturidi. The ultra rationalist school of theology is best represented by the twelfth century scholar Abul Walid Ibn Rushd (1128-1198 C.E.) known in the west as Averroes. Ibn Rushd and the Mu’tazili school of theology argued that one could reach the equivalent guidance to that represented in divine revelation by solely and exclusively relying on the rational capacity that has been endowed to us by God. The other two theological schools, the Asha’ri and the Maturidi can be located on the spectrum of rational defenders of tradition. So too is Shia theology, deeply entrenched in a rationalist defense of faith. The nominalists are certainly represented by ninth century scholar Ahmed ibn Hanbal (780-855 C.E.) and later, ibn Hazm who believed that we do not have instruments to interpret the divine and hence we must submit to pure belief.

Unlike the extreme position of Ibn Hazm, most of the Muslim theological tendencies seek to balance between transcendence and immanence. Classical Muslim theologians sought to capture in a neat formula the seemingly antithetical positions contained in the Qur’an. Moreover both the primary Islamic theological sources, the Qur`an, and the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad support such a sense of balance (mizan). For example, the Qur’an teaches Muslims that God is closer to the person than his/her jugular vein” (50:16). And furthermore, “Wherever you turn, there is the Face of God.” (2:109).

Contemporary Muslim theologies are a hybrid of classical Muslim schools such as Mu`tazili, Ash`ari, Maturidi, and Shi`i with further adaptation, all a very far cry from the monochromatic view depicted by Pope Benedict in his Regensburg lecture.

Not only can Pope Benedict be faulted for selective retrieval in order to develop his one-sided portrayal of Muslim theology of God, his speech also contained a serious factual error. He noted in his Regensburg address that verse 256, of sura 2, Al-Baqara of the Qur’an which says that, "There is no compulsion in religion," meaning that conversions should not take place by force or by coercion is a Makkan chapter, i.e. one of the suras of the early period, when Muhammad was still powerless and under threat. His commentary on this verse was again partial. While acknowledging that this Qur’anic verse opposed forced conversions, he wrongly stated that this was a Makkan verse. The suggestion by Pope Benedict that the Qur’anic prohibition on forcible conversions was overtaken by later verses which advocated forced conversions is factually incorrect. The correct version of the facts is this: Muhammad advised from a position of strength and not weakness, that there should be no forcible conversions, and that truth stands out clear from error" (Qur’an, 2: 156). Later commentators and theologians debated the hermeneutics of the verse, especially whether this verse is repealed or abrogated by other verses, where a more belligerent attitude to unbelief is advocated. Most classical as well as contemporary Muslim theologians and commentators view the “no compulsion in religion” verse as central to the Muslim view on conversion and trump those Qur’anic verses that seem to contradict this verse since they speak to a specific context. In short, Pope Benedict selected an extreme position on the interpretation of free and coerced.

In conclusion, I return to the key initial question: why did Pope Benedict bring any of this material on Islam – certain to provoke reaction – into a speech primarily about the Western intellectual tradition? The Pope called for a dialogue here on faith and reason, and the implications of their entanglement with violence in the world today. Opening the door to Muslims, Christians and secularists as he did by constructing a comparative framework for analysis invites us all to reflect on this critical issue of our time. However injudicious his portrayal of Islam may have been, the Pope's invitation to dialogue should be welcomed by Muslims and indeed all people of faith and of conscience. Such a dialogue should however not be restricted to the theological roots of violence but must move on to address the asymmetries of power and mal-distribution of wealth in this world in which religion is so heavily implicated. Finding the theological roots of violence is one part of the problem, identifying the political and economic causes is a greater imperative.

We live in a fragile world and some would argue on the precipice of a global catastrophe. Leaders of all faith communities should not allow themselves to be distracted from the task at hand of building bridges of honesty, truth and trust through a true and meaningful dialogue with each other. The first task in such an endeavor is to ensure that we have accurate representations of each other that lend integrity to our work. Failing to do so, would mean that religion and religious actors only add to the dehumanization that surrounds us.

Muslim leaders have an especially onerous challenge of condemning violent overreactions and not allowing misguided individuals who acted in a thoroughly reprehensible and depraved way in response to Pope Benedict’s remarks on Islam to speak on behalf of our communities.

Despite our current predicament I am hopeful that Catholics and Muslims will weather this latest hiccup in their relationship thanks in large part to the strong bridges that were built between our two communities by Pope John-Paul 11. These strong and firm links will hopefully help Catholics and Muslims to brave the aftermath of this regrettable episode.

A. Rashied Omar is a research fellow on Islamic ethics and peacebuilding at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame. (This paper was presented at a panel discussion on Pope Benedict in Regensburg: The Catholic Church and Islam: allies or adversaries, University of Notre Dame, September 28, 2006).

Next article
Table of contents

Eric Lott

Dangerous Dynamics in Global and Indian Life

Asian Trading Corporation and United Theological College, Bangalore, 2005