What Benedict Really Meant about Islam

Categories: Letters From Leadership

By Elihu Davison

Pope Benedict’s recent remarks at the University of Regensburg set off worldwide Islamic protests and demands for a Papal apology for alleged defamation of Islam and its prophet. Some radical Islamic leaders have gone even further, threatening calumny upon and conquest of Christendom. But what, in fact, did the Pope say? And in the larger context of his speech, what exactly was his reference to Islam?

The speech had nothing to do with Islam. It focused on the age-old question of the philosophical relationship between faith and reason. Moreover, the Pope took a consistent position in favor of a rationalist faith and against the voluntarist positivist faith that many other philosophers have also found unacceptable.

In the context of this discussion, he cited a 14th century debate (possibly apocryphal) between a Byzantine Christian emperor and a Persian Muslim. In that discourse the Christian argued that faith must persuade by reason and not coerce by violence—that violence itself is unreasonable.

Much of classical Islamic thought supports that notion of a voluntarist and positivist faith on the grounds that reason and natural causality infringes and imposes limits upon God’s absolute omnipotence. Therefore, everything is determined exclusively by God’s will and thus the constant phrase “in sha allah,” if God wills. But there are also important rationalist positions in Islamic thought such as Ibn Rushd, as well as the earlier and more rationalistically oriented mu’tazilah form of theology.

Pope Benedict’s Regensburg paper focuses on the larger questions but has nothing to do with Islam per se. The problem was that in setting up his admirably rationalist position, the Pope included a quote from the medieval Byzantine emperor which set up the claim against violence as unreasonable: “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.”

Therefore the Pope was quite correct in his subsequent statement that the text he cited does not reflect his personal view of Islam. Benedict clearly cited the text to emphasize the Emperor’s point of the unreasonableness of violence. But he failed to explicitly distance himself from the text about Mohammed. This made it possible for people who did not read his speech to take offense.

Pope Benedict is renowned for his interest in and commitment to inter-religious dialogue. Indeed, in 1994 when he headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly the Inquisition) he attended a major Jewish-Christian conference in Jerusalem. At that time he urged movement from mere toleration to mutual acceptance.

There is, of course, the irony of the Pope’s citing an enlightened medieval Christian emperor’s argument against religious violence in favor of religious persuasion. He didn’t mention that the history of Jews in most of Christendom for many centuries would have been quite different if only Christians had adopted the Christian emperor’s advice.

Islam does have rational and humane teachings. But the Muslim responses of violence and triumphalism by those who clearly haven’t bothered to read the Pope’s speech undermine their claims for Islamic rationalism and humanity.

About Elihu Davison

Elihu Davison is an alumnus of the 17th Habonim Workshop in Kibbutz Urim. He lives in Morristown, NJ.
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