Some Thoughts on Pope Benedict’s Speech

At some point, I hope, Muslims will come to realise that there are far more elegant and eloquent ways of responding to the charge that we follow a religion of violence than to respond with the sorts of violent expressions of misdirected rage that we have seen in recent days. Of course, to be fair, one can only imagine what those angry Muslims thought the Pope said because at the time that they started protesting, I understand that the speech had not yet been translated into English, Farsi, Arabic or Urdu.

Nevertheless, if one reads the Pope’s speech, one soon realises that it is far more than just some crude, hate-filled screed against Islam. In fact, given the topic is the Pope’s belief that God is logos (reason), the quote from the 14th century emperor Manuel II Paleologus, addressing a Persian Muslim scholar, seems somewhat out of place. The Pope said [PDF]:

In the seventh conversation…the emperor touches on the theme of the holy war. Without descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the “Book” and the “infidels”, he addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying: “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 he preached.”

The emperor, after having expressed himself so forcefully, goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. “God,” he says, “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.”

Although one might not reach such a conclusion by reading some of the statements made by Muslims around the world in response, there is no contention between reason and a belief in Islam. If we take the Pope’s primary challenge to Islam — that violent conversion betrays a hostility to reason — we say: we agree with that. Islam doesn’t endorse the forced conversion of people to Islam and it takes only a cursory study of the Prophet Muhammad’s (saw) life to see that. The Qu’ran isn’t filled with calls for him to convert the pagan Quraish of Mecca at the end of the sword, but rather it is filled with reminders that the Prophets and Messengers must be patient with the obstinance of their people. “You do not guide who you love, but Allah guides whom he loves,” the Qu’ran advises Muhammad (saw) — and, by extension, all Muslims.

The Pope preempts what would be the most likely Muslim response to allegations of forced conversion as follows:

The emperor must have known that Sura 2:256 reads: “There is no compulsion in religion.” It is one of the surahs of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under [threat]. But naturally the emperor also knew the instructions, developed later and recorded in the Koran, concerning Holy War.

However, this well-known Qu’ranic injunction (la ikraha fi deen) was not revealed in the early (Meccan) period but was rather revealed during the Medinan period; a period in which the Muslims had substantial military and political power relative to the pagan Arabs of Mecca. If ever there was an opportunity for forcing others to submit to Islam at the tip of a sword, this was it and certainly some recent converts to Islam in Medina were anxious to force their relatives and friends to convert too. This verse was then revealed in response to their requests. Who then is one to believe: Pope Benedict’s experts or the greatest exegetes of the Qu’ran such as Ibn Kathir who disagree entirely?

I will be posting a detailed refutation of the Pope’s arguments by Sheikh Jaafar Sheikh Idris later today insha’Allah which I would encourage everyone to read, but in the mean time, suffice to say, Muslims should not react with anger to the Pope’s remarks. Rather, we should welcome the questions that he has raised about our faith and its relationship with reason (logos); and we should welcome the opportunity to respond to his own assertions about the relationship of Christianity with reason. Addressing these sorts of challenges is the real interfaith dialogue, not sitting around sipping tea and eating scones with people that are too polite to engage in spirited religious debate.