dotCommonweal

A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors

.

Juan Cole weighs in on Benedict's apology

Juan Cole, one of the most knowledgable Middle Eastern/Islam experts, had this to say on Friday about Benedict's talk:

Pope Benedict's speech at Regensburg University, which mentioned Islam and jihad, has provoked a firestorm of controversy.

The address is more complex and subtle than the press on it represents. But let me just signal that what is most troubling of all is that the Pope gets several things about Islam wrong, just as a matter of fact.

He notes that the text he discusses, a polemic against Islam by a Byzantine emperor, cites Qur'an 2:256: "There is no compulsion in religion." Benedict maintains that this is an early verse, when Muhammad was without power.

His allegation is incorrect. Surah 2 is a Medinan surah revealed when Muhammad was already established as the leader of the city of Yathrib (later known as Medina or "the city" of the Prophet). The pope imagines that a young Muhammad in Mecca before 622 (lacking power) permitted freedom of conscience, but later in life ordered that his religion be spread by the sword. But since Surah 2 is in fact from the Medina period when Muhammad was in power, that theory does not hold water.

In fact, the Qur'an at no point urges that religious faith be imposed on anyone by force. This is what it says about the religions:

' [2:62] Those who believe (in the Qur'an), and those who follow theJewish (scriptures), and the Christians and the Sabians--any whobelieve in God and the Last Day, and work righteousness, shall havetheir reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear, nor shall theygrieve.'


See my comments On the Quran and peace.

The idea of holy war or jihad (which is about defending the communityor at most about establishing rule by Muslims, not about imposing thefaith on individuals by force) is also not a Quranic doctrine. Thedoctrine was elaborated much later, on the Umayyad-Byzantine frontier,long after the Prophet's death. In fact, in early Islam it was hard tojoin, and Christians who asked to become Muslim were routinely turnedaway. The tyrannical governor of Iraq, al-Hajjaj, was notorious forthis rejection of applicants, because he got higher taxes onnon-Muslims. Arab Muslims had conquered Iraq, which was then largelypagan, Zoroastrian, Christian and Jewish. But they weren't seekingconverts and certainly weren't imposing their religion.

The pope was trying to make the point that coercion of conscience is incompatible with genuine, reasoned faith. He used Islam as a symbol of the coercive demand for unreasoned faith.

But he has been misled by the medieval polemic on which he depended.

In fact, the Quran also urges reasoned faith and also forbids coercion in religion. The only violence urged in the Quran is in self-defense of the Muslim community against the attempts of the pagan Meccans to wipe it out.

The pope says that in Islam, God is so transcendant that he is beyond reason and therefore cannot be expected to act reasonably. He contrasts this conception of God with that of the Gospel of John, where God is the Logos, the Reason inherent in the universe.

But there have been many schools of Islamic theology and philosophy. The Mu'tazilite school maintained exactly what the Pope is saying, that God must act in accordance with reason and the good as humans know them. The Mu'tazilite approach is still popular in Zaidism and in Twelver Shiism of the Iraqi and Iranian sort. The Ash'ari school, in contrast, insisted that God was beyond human reason and therefore could not be judged rationally. (I think the Pope would find that Tertullian and perhaps also John Calvin would be more sympathetic to this view within Christianity than he is).

As for the Quran, it constantly appeals to reason in knowing God, and in refuting idolatry and paganism, and asks, "do you not reason?" "do you not understand?" (a fala ta`qilun?)

Of course, Christianity itself has a long history of imposing coerced faith on people, including on pagans in the late Roman Empire, who were forcibly converted. And then there were the episodes of the Crusades.

Another irony is that reasoned, scholastic Christianity has an important heritage drom Islam itself. In the 10th century, there was little scholasticism in Christian theology. The influence of Muslim thinkers such as Averroes (Ibn Rushd) and Avicenna (Ibn Sina) reemphasized the use of Aristotle and Plato in Christian theology. Indeed, there was a point where Christian theologians in Paris had divided into partisans of Averroes or of Avicenna, and they conducted vigorous polemics with one another.

Finally, that Byzantine emperor that the Pope quoted, Manuel II? The Byzantines had been weakened by Latin predations during the fourth Crusade, so it was in a way Rome that had sought coercion first. And, he ended his days as a vassal of the Ottoman Empire.

The Pope was wrong on the facts. He should apologize to the Muslims and get better advisers on Christian-Muslim relations.

And then, Cole had this to say today about the apology:

Pope Benedict said on Sunday that the quote he had cited from Byzantineemperor Manuel II, which said that the Prophet Muhammd brought onlyevil and conversion by the sword, did not reflect his own views. He said:

"I am deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries to a fewpassages of my address at the University of Regensburg, which wereconsidered offensive to the sensibility of Muslims . . . These in factwere a quotation from a medieval text, which do not in any way expressmy personal thought. I hope this serves to appease hearts and toclarify the true meaning of my address, which in its totality was andis an invitation to frank and sincere dialogue, with mutual respect."

Although there were protests in Iran and some scattered acts ofviolence, mostly in already-violent areas, this statement seemed tomollify some Muslim leaders.

A Muslim Brotherhood official inEgypt initially said that the statement was a clear retraction andsufficient as an apology, but apparently under popular pressure, hebacked off that stance slightly, saying that the Pope hadn't actuallyclearly apologized, though he had taken a good step toward an apology.But the Brotherhood clearly was looking for a way to defuse the crisis,and that it initially latched on to the Pope's relatively impenitentremarks so eagerly, shows that it is eager to see things calmed down.The Egyptian MB thought the controversy was now likely to subside, andI hope they are right about that.

Some Western observers think that this episode was the Pope's play for moral authority at a time of a clash between Islam and the West.

Ithink that is right. Benedict was trying to stake out a position thatWestern godless atheism is actually unreasonable, and that hard linecoercive religion that disregards reason is wrong (he incorrectlyidentified this position as that of Muhammad and the Quran). Thus, theCatholic Church, with its reasoned faith, becomes the ideal, avoidingthe errors of the two extremes (Western secularism and Islam). Toaccomplish this positioning, Benedict XVI had to reduce to cardboardfigures all three traditions--Western rationalism, Roman Catholicism,and Islam.

Read the rest here

Comments

Commenting Guidelines

Thanks to so many of you for your illuminating comments. Bear with me for just one more remark. According to the provisional text, the pope had a harsh word for Kant. I know that I'm not alone in thinking that Kant performed a great service by showing something of the limits of reason. That is, to cover the ground, he found that he had to distinguish pure reason from practical reason and both of them from what he called judgment (esthetic judgment). This recognition that "reason" is not all of a piece and that it has limits leaves space for a Revelation that announces truths to us that we could get no other way. There's more content to our faith than any philosophy could confirm. For example, no philosophy can show that it is possible for a man (Jesus) really to be God.

Bernard--I wouldn't pretend to understand even 0.01% of Kant's thought, but, and I'm reaching back decades to my memories of Fr. Cardoni's modern philosophy class, when the Pope said in his lecture that "the modern self-limitation of reason" is "classically expressed in Kant's 'Critiques,'" I think the Pope may have been referring to Kant's belief that we can't really know reality in and of itself, that what is real is beyond human experience and understanding. When Kant, an unknown professor in the town of Konigsberg, published his "Critique of Pure Reason," which if I recall he had been working on for 20 or 30 years, it shook the philosophical world to its core, or at least the world of empirical philosophy of Locke and others that was dominating western thought at the time. (I imagine it was something like the effect an unknown patent clerk named Einstein had when he published a series of papers on relativity in the early 20th century that revolutionized physics.) Locke believed that all knowledge is the result of sensory experience only. The mind is a blank slate at birth, a tabula rasa, and our sensory experiences imprint on that slate. For Locke, there is no other reality, and how do we know that the sensory impressions are real in any event? Along comes Kant, who tells the high and mighty in empirical philosophy circles that they have it wrong. He says that the mind is not a blank slate at birth, that it instead contains what we today in this Microsoft Windows world would call a built-in operating system that is capable of manipulating sensory experiences into other forms. To prove his argument, Kant set forth a list of items of knowledge we possess (I think he called them modalities) that cannot be the result of sensory impressions. The one I remember most clearly is passage of time. We inherently know that time passes even if we are deprived of all sensory input. Sorry for this preliminary stuff, but I'm coming again to the Pope's comments about Kant, who as brilliant as he was also realized that "reality" is limited by the limits of the operating system the mind is pre-programmed with. What is really "real" then, in Kant's thought, is beyond the capacity of the human mind. This I where the Pope disagrees with Kant. In Kant's philosophical construct, there is no room for "revealed" truth. Ironically, though Kant did not believe that the existence of God could ever be proven, he did believe that it was not irrational to come to a belief in the existence of God through use of "logical understanding." Kant believed that the world as we know it is not sufficient in and of itself, especially as to issues of morality, and that an external supreme power, which he identified with God, was a necessity for regulating human behavior. I'm no doubt oversimplifying (and likely not completely correct), but I think Kant believed that without God, there would be no meaning to our life here on earth. The Pope would no doubt agree with Kant on this last point, but not with Kant's belief that we can never really know God, or Kant's method of backing in to belief in the existence of God. I'm sure there are many who can point out the mistakes in this analysis, but it's the way I thought through the Pope's remarks about Kant in his lecture, relying on the now dusty lessons of a teacher I remember fondly.

Bernard,I have to disagree. Your say: I know that I'm not alone in thinking that Kant performed a great service by showing something of the limits of reason. That is, to cover the ground, he found that he had to distinguish pure reason from practical reason and both of them from what he called judgment (esthetic judgment). This recognition that "reason" is not all of a piece and that it has limits leaves space for a Revelation that announces truths to us that we could get no other way.Of course reason has limits and that is not something Kant was the first to notice. But Kant denied that there was any possibility of metaphysics in the sense that Aristotle, the Scholastics, and for that matter Descartes and Leibniz understood that there was. For Kant, theoretical reason cannot get beyond the God of the ontological argument, who in Kants view, is a conceptual nonstarter. His substitute is the Great Rewarder of Virtue as a postulate of practical reason who amounts to little more than a projection of the wishful thinking of the virtuous but possibly self-deluded practitioners of Kantian ethics.You continue:There's more content to our faith than any philosophy could confirm. For example, no philosophy can show that it is possible for a man (Jesus) really to be God. Yes, there is more to faith/revelation than philosophy can confirm. It did not take Kant to discover that. Certainly no philosophy can prove than any particular man is God. But I wonder if philosophy can show that at least there is no logical difficulty in saying that Jesus is both man and God. Suppose a sceptic says that the concept of a man who is God is a contradiction in terms and therefore impossible. That requires an answer. It is certainly true that no man can be a god, or a goat, because men and gods, and men and goats, are different sorts of things. But God is not a god. God is not any sort of thing. To be a thing of any sort is to be to that extent limited as all creatures are limited because there is always about them what they are and what they are not, what limits them. But there is no limit in God. The divine nature is not of the same order as any created nature, and that is why we cannot comprehend it. It is for that reason, I think, that there is no logical difficulty in saying that Jesus is both man and God, as there would be in saying that Jesus is both a man and a god. Of course this does not entail that we, strictly speaking, know what we are talking about when we say that Jesus is both man and God.

Bernard,I have to disagree. Your say: I know that I'm not alone in thinking that Kant performed a great service by showing something of the limits of reason. That is, to cover the ground, he found that he had to distinguish pure reason from practical reason and both of them from what he called judgment (esthetic judgment). This recognition that "reason" is not all of a piece and that it has limits leaves space for a Revelation that announces truths to us that we could get no other way.Of course reason has limits and that is not something Kant was the first to notice. But Kant denied that there was any possibility of metaphysics in the sense that Aristotle, the Scholastics, and for that matter Descartes and Leibniz understood that there was. For Kant, theoretical reason cannot get beyond the God of the ontological argument, who in Kants view, is a conceptual nonstarter. His substitute is the Great Rewarder of Virtue as a postulate of practical reason who amounts to little more than a projection of the wishful thinking of the virtuous but possibly self-deluded practitioners of Kantian ethics.You continue:There's more content to our faith than any philosophy could confirm. For example, no philosophy can show that it is possible for a man (Jesus) really to be God. Yes, there is more to faith/revelation than philosophy can confirm. It did not take Kant to discover that. Certainly no philosophy can prove than any particular man is God. But I wonder if philosophy can show that at least there is no logical difficulty in saying that Jesus is both man and God. Suppose a sceptic says that the concept of a man who is God is a contradiction in terms and therefore impossible. That requires an answer. It is certainly true that no man can be a god, or a goat, because men and gods, and men and goats, are different sorts of things. But God is not a god. God is not any sort of thing. To be a thing of any sort is to be to that extent limited as all creatures are limited because there is always about them what they are and what they are not, what limits them. But there is no limit in God. The divine nature is not of the same order as any created nature, and that is why we cannot comprehend it. It is for that reason, I think, that there is no logical difficulty in saying that Jesus is both man and God, as there would be in saying that Jesus is both a man and a god. Of course this does not entail that we, strictly speaking, know what we are talking about when we say that Jesus is both man and God.

Pages

Share

About the Author

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages and blogs at dotCommonweal.