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.

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Margaret O’Brien Steinfels is a former editor of Commonweal. 

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