Monday, September 18, 2006

Was the Pope Wrong?

I'm publishing this with permission of the History News Network---Fr. Gregory
Was the Pope Wrong?
By Timothy R. Furnish

Mr. Furnish, Ph.D (Islamic History), is Assistant Professor, History, Georgia Perimeter College, Dunwoody, GA 30338. Mr. Furnish is the author of Holiest Wars: Islamic Mahdis, their Jihads and Osama bin Laden (Praeger, 2005).
Back when it was still amusing, “Saturday Night Live” had a skit called “Bizarro World” in which conventional wisdom was turned upside down (my favorite—humorously, not politically—was one in which Ronald Reagan, far from being the somnolent buffoon of liberal legend, actually ran Cabinet meetings till others fell asleep and spoke on the phone in Arabic to Qadhafi).
But nowadays it seems that reality is imitating art (okay, popular culture) as Muslims engage in violence if anyone dares suggest…that Islam has a violent strain! Last spring it was attacks on Christians for the Danish newspaper cartoons caricaturizing Muhammad; now Muslims are burning churches in the Palestinian territories and India because the pope made a reference to Islam’s martial past. At his best, Al Franken could not have come up with such skits (not that he’d have had the courage to do so).

Last week Pope Benedict XVI lectured at the University of Regensburg, in Germany.1 His address is largely a continuation of the efforts by his predecessor, John Paul II, to bridge the gap between faith and reason that has developed since the Enlightenment in Western and, indeed, world society.2 Benedict believes that Greek philosophy is an integral part of the articulation of Christian revelation, especially its emphasis on reason. He spells out three phases in the attempted “dehellenization of Christianity:” the Reformation, liberal 19th and 20th century theology and modern “cultural pluralism” which wants to “return to the simple message of the New Testament…in order to inculturate it anew….”3 Each of these movements, argues Benedict, is dangerous because each threatens to jettison reason. On the other hand, “reason which is deaf to the divine and which relegates religion into the realm of subcultures is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures.” Faith and reason are two sides of the coin of Christianity, Benedict in essence is saying.
So why are churches burning in Palestine? Because of the example the pope used to illustrate his point. He quotes the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus (d. 1425) who, in a debate with a Muslim, said
Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith that he preached….God is not pleased by blood—and not acting reasonably 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….
Benedict goes on to gloss this passage, noting that the Islamic view of God’s absolute transcendence put Him above even the necessity for acting reasonably (by human standards)—a view foreign to Christianity, imbued as it is with the Greek respect for rationality. The pope concludes his lecture with “it is to this great logos, to this breadth of reason, that we invite our partners in the dialogue of cultures.”
One might think that Muslims would be offended because the head of the world’s largest Christian denomination considers them, well, unreasonable. But the rent-a-mobs in Gaza and Kashmir are proving the truth of his assertion in that regard. As for the numerous statements by Muslim spokesmen that the pope is “ignorant” of Islam and Islamic history—well, the reality is that they simply can’t handle the truth.
First, Muhammad was not just a man claiming that God spoke through him; he was also a political and military leader. Driven out of Mecca and taking the reins of power in Medina, Muhammad and the Muslims spread their faith not just via da`is (missionaries), but by the sword; in fact, Jews in Medina who refused to accept Muhammad’s prophethood (and who, to be accurate, were accused of plotting against King Muhammad) were killed or enslaved. The conquest of Mecca in 630 CE was accomplished at swordpoint, not by persuasion. The creation of a huge Islamic Empire by the first four caliphs, the Umayyads and the Abbasids (between 632 and the end of the first millennium CE) was carried out via conquest—not by handing out brochures. Granted, Jews and Christians within the Muslim-ruled territories from the Pyrenees to the Indus were not all forced to convert—but the relegation to second-class status known as dhimmah led, eventually, to the majority of people in North Africa and the Middle East converting to Islam.
The initial phase of Islamic conquests resulted in about half the territory of the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire switching hands. For several centuries the borders stabilized and the Byzantines ruled a state pushed back into Anatolia and the Balkan Peninsula. But in the 14th century CE a new wave of Muslim jihadists, the Ottoman Turks, were again moving on Byzantine lands. This was the situation facing Manuel II, and no doubt his view of Islam as “evil and inhuman” was in no small measure influenced by watching what was left of his empire disintegrating. (Indeed, less than three decades after his death Constantinople would fall to the Ottoman ruler Mehmet II.) One might ask how many Muslims setting fire to Christian churches, or to effigies of the pope, are even aware of this? I suspect that even if they were, it would make no difference.
For, in the view of some Muslims, it is not unreasonable to spread their religion by violence, for two reasons: 1) it is the final revelation of God to humanity and 2) the Qur’an enjoins it. To paraphrase Dr. Henry Jones (Indiana’s father): “goose-stepping morons like yourselves should be reading your holy book instead of burning churches.” If they did, they would discover that: Surah Muhammad [47]:3 says “When you meet the unbelievers on the battlefield, strike off their heads….
Surah Anfal [8]:12 says “I shall cast terror into the hearts of the infidels. Strike off their heads, strike off the tips of their fingers.”
Surah al-Nisa’[4]:74 says “Let those who would exchange the life of this world for the hereafter, fight for the cause of God….”
Surah al-Nisa’[4]:56 says “The true believer fights for the cause of God, but the infidel fights for the devil.”
Surah al-Nisa’[4]:101 says “The unbelievers are your inveterate enemies.”
Surah al-Ma’idah [5]:51 says “Believers, take neither Jews nor Christians for your friends.”
Only in a truly Bizarro world can those passages NOT be an incitement for some to violence, to “evil and inhuman” acts. Are there other passages in the Qur’an mitigating these? Yes.
4 But many of these more benevolent passages are also considered by many Muslims to have been abrogated by the more martial ones.
Many, Muslim and non-Muslim, try to make the counter-argument that “all religions have violent passages.” Let us take one prominent example: the New Testament. There is really only ONE passage in the entire New Testament that can be construed as promoting violence—Matthew 10:34: “[Jesus said] Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” But, the following verses explain that Jesus was speaking metaphorically and not advocating a quick trip to the local Jewish armorer: “For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household. He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me.” The belief in Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of God will divide even families. Also, Jesus explicitly told his followers to turn the other cheek when struck (Matthew 5:39; Luke 6:29) and, for those of you who may not have heard the story, voluntarily allowed himself to be crucified by the Romans. Did his teaching later get twisted into a state ideology—beginning with the Roman Emperor Constantine? Indeed. But that is the point: Jesus’ teachings had to be forced to fit into a Roman (and later Carolingian, Crusader, etc.) suit of armor—whereas the chain mail of Islamic armies was fashioned directly out of Muhammad’s revelations.
Pope Benedict XVI is too smart a man not to have known what would be the repercussions of quoting an exasperated Byzantine emperor on Islam. By doing so the pope has thrown down the gauntlet to the Islamic world, subtly insisting that true “dialogue” between the world’s largest (Christianity) and second-largest (Islam) religions demands that the latter own up to its historical misdeeds every bit as much as the former has had to do for at least a century. Unfortunately, honest historical and theological reflection in the Islamic world would seem to be far too “unreasonable” to contemplate for many of the world’s Muslims
1 Available at,,1873277,00.html
2 John Paul II, Fides et Ratio (Boston: Pauline Books, 1996).
3 Interestingly, regarding this last point Benedict XVI seems to contradict his predecessor, who in Fides et Ratio, p. 91, said “In preaching the Gospel, Christianity first encountered Greek philosophy, but this does not mean at all that other approaches are precluded.”
4 Surah al-Furqan [25]:65ff says Allah will be merciful to those who do good works; Surah al-Baqarah [2]:256 says “there shall be no compulsion in religion” (although the kidnappers of those two Fox newsmen seem not to have read this); and Surah al-Nisa’ [4]:19ff commands Muslim men to provide for wives and ex-wives.

1 comment:

Mark said...

Fix metaphorical bayonets, Forward into dialogue.