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Reader comment on item: Pope Benedict Criticizes Islam [in Regensburg]

Submitted by Aziz Allaf (Australia), Sep 27, 2006 at 20:23

The atmosphere between the Islamic World and the West is tense. The reaction to his Holiness the Pope Benedict XVI's lecture of September 12, 2006 is the latest proof; it will not be the last. The September 11, 2001 atrocities may not be the cause of such an atmosphere as many Muslims were among the victims. Moreover, the War on Terror may not be the motive as many Islamic countries actively participate in its combined efforts. Furthermore, regional political issues may not necessarily be the incentives as divergences in regard to their causes and outcomes are legitimate. Nevertheless, cultural stereotypes may be at the origin of such an atmosphere as Islam and the West stand as the devil's of each other.

Despite his Holiness's confirmation that the Roman Church is "Catholic" and not "Western," quotes "cut off" from his lecture and its context have ignited outrage across the Islamic world. Muslims feel (wrongly or rightly) that they are the target of a Western concerted vilification of their religious tradition and its symbols. They suspect that they are inappropriately accused of all the world's terrorist and terrorizing acts. Muslims are angry. The Westerners are angry too; it is a different anger.

Taking into consideration his Christian principles and papal behavior, I strongly believe that his Holiness did not absolutely mean to prompt the Muslims' anger. Acknowledging that such a communal anger may have a strong impact on the world's international politics and the relations among the world's great religious communities, his Holiness has always upheld his deep respect of all religions, included Islam and believers in Islam. At the time of the "cartoons," published in a Danish newspaper, he strikingly condemned the act:

In the international context we are living at present, the Catholic Church continues convinced that, to foster peace and understanding between peoples and men, it is necessary and urgent that religions and their symbols be respected…Believers should not be the object of provocations that wound their lives and religious sentiments…For believers, as for all people of good will, the only path that can lead to peace and fraternity is respect for the convictions and religious practices of others.

In his deeply philosophical and theological lecture, his Holiness approached two dilemmas, the first was about the Islamic principle of no compulsion in religion and the fact of violence, and the second was about the Christian faith and the Greek logos. These two dilemmas are both inter-related. They represent two issues in today national and international contexts, on both the individual and the communal levels; they conduct both to understanding God beyond the human faith, reason, law and deeds. God transcends them all as a great Middle-Age Andalusi Islamic scholar, ‘Ibn Hazm, which his Holiness mentioned twice in his lecture, maintained.

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.

His Holiness's objective was, I think, not to trigger anger in the streets but to encourage a discussion at the academic level. I'd like to share in this discussion and to converse about the first dilemma. In this dilemma, the Pope emphasized the Islamic Koranic principle of "Let there be no compulsion in religion;"[1] he entailed, I think, a criticism of he Byzantine Emperor who should "have known that verse" when the latter asked a Persian Muslim Scholar about violence and its relationship with religion. The Emperor stated that violence is incompatible with reason, and by this it is incompatible with "the nature of God and the nature of soul." My approach will be socio-historic as I would like to look at the two premises of the dilemma in their original socio-historic contexts.

Let me first contextualize what the Byzantine Emperor said about the violence.

In the Middle Ages, the Catholic Europe then the Ottoman Turks represented successively the two great threats to the Byzantine Empire's stability. Manuel II was the second son of the Emperor John V Palaiologos. His older brother failed to usurp power. Manuel II was proclaimed heir and co-emperor of his father; nonetheless, they were both twice supplanted by the older brother and his nephew. Manuel II was forced to go as an honorary hostage to the court of the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid I, and to participate in the Ottoman campaign that reduced Philadelpheia, the last Byzantine enclave in Anatolia. At the death of his father, he fled the Ottoman court, and joined forces with his nephew to defend the besieged Constantinople (1394-1402). He sought assistance from Europe against the Ottoman Empire. However, the anti-Ottoman crusade failed. At the death of the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid I, his sons went into a civil war with each other over the power. Manuel II stood on friendly terms with the Sultan Mehmed I; conversely, Murad II, the new Ottoman Sultan launched a second assault on Constantinople in 1422. Manuel II was forced in 1424 to sign a peace treaty and to pay tribute to the Sultan. In his writings, the Byzantine Emperor reflected on the "rise of Islam" when the Ottomans conquered most of his Empire and besieged twice Constantinople.

It seems to me that this historical context determined the Emperor's views and attitudes against Islam: "Show me just what Mohammad 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." But were the Ottoman conquests about spreading the Islamic faith or about the power of a state and an empire? Was Manuel II's opinion about the Prophet Mohammad and the faith he preached or about the Ottoman Emperor Murad II and the tribute he imposed on the Byzantine Emperor? And in the face of that Ottoman threat, did the Byzantine Emperor preach the Christian principles of tolerance and love or did he defend his Christian Empire by the sword? One word, if we change it, makes all the difference. The Emperor had the Ottoman Sultan in mind as the cartoonist had Bin Laden.

Let me now contextualize what the Pope emphasizes: "no compulsion in religion."

In the seventh century, Islam began its mission in the Arabian Peninsula. Inter-tribal warfare weakened the political order. Tribal law was in force within the limits of the tribe. Tribal values were based upon polytheist religious beliefs and honor. The Quraysh was the most important tribe. Mecca was an oasis on the old caravan trade route. The Prophet Mohammad implored the Meccans to retrieve the original Abrahamic unity of Allah. Islam was a simple religion, in the Latin meaning of the word religãre (to tie up). Religion as a dīn in the Arabic and Semitic meanings of the word, which covered spiritual, social and political life was not yet applicable. Mohammad's aspirations were to unify the Arab tribes under one system of values and one authority: "I want Arabs to be united under one word – Allah is one-."[2] At that time, his political philosophy identified the world as divided between dār al-tawḥīd (the sphere of monotheists) and dār al-širk (the sphere of polytheists). In 615-616 when the Byzantines lost Jerusalem to the Persians, he sympathized with the Christians, "he detested seeing the polytheist Persians victorious over the Byzantines, People of the Book."[3] In the Koranic surah of al-Rūm[4] (the Byzantines) a victory was anticipated.[5]

Over thirteen years, the passionate preaching of the Prophet in Mecca did not bring any success. The Meccans were determined to end his mission by force. Invited by the tribes of Medina to put an end to their internecine war, Mohammad seized the opportunity and escaped Mecca. Medina was at that time a multi-religious (polytheist, Jewish and Muslim) and a multi-tribal (two Arab tribes, clans of Jews and emigrants from Mecca) society. Mohammad had to deal with this society, the economic and military threat represented by the influential Quraysh, the question of internal security, the socioeconomic issues, the relations with the Arabic tribes; and the great threat represented by the surrounding regional powers at that time. Two Koranic concepts set up the perimeter of the religious and political framework:

"Say ye: ‘We believe in Allah, and the revelation given to us, and to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes, and that given to Moses and Jesus, and that given to all Prophets from their Lord: We make no difference between one and another of them: and we are all surrendering to Allah's Will'."[6]

‘Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from Error.'[7]

In Medina, Mohammad applied his political paradigm of Dār al-salām (the sphere of peace), which was composed of dār al-islām (the sphere of Muslims) and dār al-‘ahd (the sphere of agreement); Dār al-ḥarb (the sphere of war), which was made up of dār al-širk (the sphere of polytheism) and dār al-kufr (the sphere of unbelief); Dār al-ḥarb was about people that refused to enter into a treaty or they breached terms of a treaty; and the principle of jihād (effort and struggle), which covered a multiple and complex set of measures; these measures moved between dār al-salām and dār al- ḥarb, dār al-islām and dār al-širk, dār al-‘ahd and dār al- kufr. The Prophet Mohammad set up a new social community and a political state. He established first a brotherhood of mutual solidarity between the Meccan emigrants and their Medinan supporters. He wrote a pact to govern relations among the Muslims, the Arab tribes of al-'Aws and al-Hazraj, and the Medinan Jews. "The Jews of banū ‘awf are a community ('umma) along with the believers (mu'minūn). To the Jews their religion (dīn) and to the Muslims their religion." This formula was then repeated with the name of each clan in turn.[8] The Pact of Medina served as a social contract between al-'umma as the larger community and the individual communities. It served also as a basis for the government; by virtue of it, Mohammad ruled al-'umma (the larger community). Jews were considered a part of al-'umma and treated as a single community of their own:

Jews who join in the treaty and become part of the larger community it creates are due help and equal treatment; Jews shall not be wronged, nor shall their enemies be given aid; Jews will be treated as one community with the Muslims, but each has their own religion; Jews have the same status as the parties making the pact.[9]

The Pact of Medina lasted eighteen months. It set out the terms of solidarity, security, the rights and duties of individual communities, and the manner in which disputes would be resolved.

Mohammed made important advances toward the extension of dār al-salām by the consolidation of dār al-‘ahd beyond Medina. He entered into a peace treaty with the Quraysh, with most Arabic tribes, and wrote letters to the kings of the neighboring empires; he invited them all to acknowledge the new religion. The first contact with the Byzantine Empire was in southern Syria in the Christian City of Tabuk. A treaty was made with its governor. As monotheists, and according to the terms of the treaty written by the Prophet himself, the Christian community of Tabuk did not have to embrace Islam; it had to pay jizyat (a non-Muslim tax)[10] in return for protection and security. At the death of the Prophet, the Arabian Peninsula was united; it became dār al-salām with treaties governing non-Muslims, which were required not to convert but to pay jizyat.

Dār al-salām (the house of peace) and dār al-‘ahd (the sphere of agreement) were the cornerstone in the Prophet Mohammad's political paradigm. He realized it in Medina, the Arabian Peninsula and beyond, it was one of his great achievements and the first application of the Koranic principle: "Let there be no compulsion in religion." Dār al-ḥarb (the sphere of war) had not the primacy. Jihād (effort and struggle) was mostly related to the former than to the latter. In the globalized but multi-religious, multi-cultural world we are living in today, such a principle and a paradigm are more inspiring than any anger. The atmosphere between the Islamic World and the West is tense. Muslims are angry. Westerners are angry too; it is a different anger. Recognizing and understanding the other's beliefs, aspirations and issues, declining any rigid stereotype as well as getting engaged in a "reasonable" dialogue may help transcend the tension and the anger. This is the logos of a valuable and durable relationship. His Holiness the Pope Benedict XVI did not intend to prompt anger but to encourage discussion.







[1] The Koran, The Cow, 256. Abdullah Yusuf Ali, The Holy Qur'ān, Text, Translation and Commentary, Amana Corporation, Maryland, U.S.A., 1989

[2] Mohammed bin Jarīr al-Ṭabarī, History of the Nations and the Kings, vol. II, p. 219.

[3] Ibid. vol. II, p. 142.

[4] Ibid. vol. II, p. 142.

[5] The Koran, Surah of al-Rūm, verses 2-3.

[6] The Koran, the Cow, 136.

[7] The Koran, the Cow, 256.

[8] Ibid. vol. II, pp.149-150

[9] Ibid. vol. II, pp. 147-150.

[10] Muslims paid another tax, Zakāt. They had to participate in the defence and the exercises of security.


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