Angry at the pope
I read the speech that in September 2006 caused world-wide indignation among Muslims. Pope Benedict XVI, while on a visit to the university of Regensburg in Germany, had the audacity to quote a Mediaeval Byzantine emperor saying:
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.
The pope clearly, and twice, indicated he thought these words ‘unacceptably brusque’, and ‘forceful’, even before quoting the emperor, so there could be no doubt about the pope’s own position on this issue: he did not agree with the quoted emperor. The rest of his speech did not at all elaborate on the emperor’s statement, but on the footnote that the editor of the Mediaeval text had put in it as a comment on the emperors line of thoughts. Still, quite a few Muslims took offence.
I don’t think this was just a case of misunderstanding or poor comprehension on the part of some Muslims. There’s a deeper reason they were offended by the pope. Not because he insulted Islam. He clearly didn’t, and even for the bad listener he made it absolutely clear this was not his intention.
The reason is the pope’s position on the question of whether God is a reasonable being and his views on interreligious dialogue. It was the very core of his speech. The emperor’s insult was only what led him to think what he was talking about in Regensburg: can we have a reasonable interreligious discourse among humans when we operate on the presumption that God is not reasonable? Can we live together at all, adhering to differing faiths, in peace, as long as anyone believes God is not reasonable?
The answer is: we cannot. And the pope put his finger exactly where it itches, because in Islam, God is not necessarily reasonable and just. He is above all sovereign and independent and not bound to anything. This means God may not be bound to reason and justice. Quite the opposite: justice might simply be whatever God wants. It was this observation that the pope found in the footnote, and that got him thinking. The footnote quoted ibn Hazm who went as far as to claim that God was not even bound to His own word, an extreme case of voluntarism, especially for a Muslim, as the Qur’an is believed by them to be His Word.
When you read the speech, the pope’s point is made obliquely. His direct point is that our modern western idea of ‘reason’ has become so narrowed down to ‘hard science’ that we are excluding theology, philosophy and large parts of the scholarly traditions of the world, notably from deeply religious parts, from the realm of scholarship. The west in this way makes a dialogue with other cultures impossible. Implicitly he seems to blame the west for frustrating intercultural dialogue with the Islamic world. In a sense he’s on the side of the Muslims.
But at the same time he emphasises that acting contrary to reason contradicts the essence of God, and he concludes that we should invite other cultures to a dialogue based on that broad idea of ‘reason’. But this means there are always two sources of knowledge about God: revelation and reason. For Muslims this cannot mean anything else but the possibility of questioning your faith. Even God Himself can become the object of questions, even arguments. Ever since Genesis 18:22, Judaism and Christianity have had a long tradition of arguing with God, but for a lot of Muslims this is still uncharted territory.
There is an exception to be made. Above I talked about ‘Islam’, where I should have said ‘Sunni Islam’. In Shia Islam, God is considered just and reasonable. I think nobody has ever told the pope that he’s Shi’ite…