Pope Benedict XVI and Islam: beyond words

About the author
Tina Beattie is professor of Catholic studies at Roehampton University, England.

Let me begin with a speculative proposition. When Pope Benedict XVI was invited to give a lecture at the place he had once studied, the University of Regensburg in Bavaria, it was a welcome opportunity to slip out of the rigours of the papacy and to enjoy a brief respite in the persona of the academic theologian - a role with which he is perhaps more comfortable than with his more recent one in the Vatican.

I suspect too that his lecture - delivered on 12 September 2006, and entitled "Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections" - was written without consultation or advice, and perhaps with a mental image of a largely private forum in which he could reminisce and cogitate among his intellectual peers, away from the public gaze.

Certainly, the lecture's opening paragraph supports this line of thought. It consists of the nostalgic reminiscences of a professor who fondly remembers the atmosphere of rational debate and rigorous theological enquiry which he used to be part of, when theology shared common ground with philosophy in its privileging of universal reason.

If this hypothesis is correct, then it suggests that Benedict XVI is at the very least guilty of a certain naivety with regard to the realities of public life in a media-driven age. But unfortunately, I think the criticism might need to go further than this.

In the second paragraph the pope switches to an account, written by Professor Theodore Khoury of Münster University, of a 14th-century dialogue between the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaeologus and "an educated Persian" during the siege of Constantinople (although it has been suggested that Manuel's dialogue dates back to an earlier time when he was a hostage at the court of the Turkish sultan).

It is here that Pope Benedict strays into an area that he should have known would be incendiary in our contemporary political and religious climate. True, there is no reason why a religious leader should not court controversy by raising challenging questions, but it is important that this is done in a way that upholds the values the pope refers to in his lecture - those of informed debate and rational enquiry in the service of faith. In his representation of Islam, the pope failed to do this.

Tina Beattie is reader in Christian studies at Roehampton University, England. Among her books are God's Mother, Eve's Advocate (Allen & Unwin, 2002) and New Catholic Feminism: Theology and Theory (Routledge 2005)

This article refers to Pope Benedit XVI's lecture at the University of Regensburg on 12 September 2006, entitled "Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections". The full text of the lecture can be found here

Faith and reason

The lecture is well worth reading for its carefully argued defence of the centrality of reason for faith and for intercultural dialogue. In a postmodern era of violently competing rationalities, the pope criticises the separation of faith and reason brought about by the Reformation with its rejection of reason and the Enlightenment with its rejection of faith. The important part of the material cited is Emperor Manuel's insistence that faith must be spread by reason and not by violence, and the lecture can be read as a sustained protest against the use of violence in the service of religion - another contribution, perhaps, to the growing trend by modern popes to reject all forms of violence and war as a means of solving disputes.

But, by positioning his argument in the context of this medieval dialogue, the pope cannot avoid the implicit suggestion that Catholic Christianity has traditionally been reasoned, philosophical and peace-loving, while Islam has been irrational, fideistic and violent.

For example, Benedict refers to the Muslim theologian Ibn Hazm who defended the absolute transcendence of God; he contrasts this view with the Christian, Hellenistic understanding of God, which brings about a harmony between faith and reason through the self-revelation of a rational God. The implication (not explicitly spelled out), is that Islam (like Protestant Christianity), worships a transcendent God who is not accessible even to reason, and thus has a fundamental irrationalism inscribed at its heart, while Catholic Christianity has never sought to contradict the demands of reason in its understanding of faith.

Yet Benedict acknowledges that the 13th-century Scots theologian Duns Scotus would be an example of a "voluntarism" which negated the "so-called intellectualism of Augustine and Thomas". In other words, Catholicism, like Islam, has thinkers whose mystical theology has sought to negate any possible knowledge of God, including the claims which reason puts upon us. A greater respect for the heterogeneity of the Muslim as well as the Catholic theological inheritance might have resulted in a more nuanced and sensitive analysis.

All this can be argued even before we come to the defamatory quotation which Benedict saw fit to include: the emperor is alleged to have said: "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." This part of the quotation is superfluous to the pope's argument, so why did he include it?

There have been numerous ingenious attempts to argue that, as he was quoting from another source, he was not expressing his own opinion. But he does not sufficiently distance himself from the sentiments expressed in the quotation, although it has been pointed out that the German version of the speech describes this comment as "astoundingly harsh - to us surprisingly harsh", which in the English translation is rendered more mildly as "startling brusqueness". Nevertheless, some readers could justifiably be left with the sense that perhaps our contemporary Pope does not find this an entirely inaccurate description of Muhammad and his followers, so that this lecture may give us a revealing glimpse of Benedict's own prejudices.

Also in openDemocracy, a debate on "democracy in the Catholic Church?", including:

Neal Ascherson, "Pope John Paul II and democracy"
(1 April 2005)

Lavinia Byrne, "The Vatican, the Kremlin, and the Feminine"
(11 April 2005)

Michael Walsh, "From Joseph Ratzinger to Pope Benedict XVI"
(16 April 2005)

Andrew Brown, "Cardinal Chernenko?" (20 April 2005)

Islam and change

Islam is going through a period of enormous upheaval. Many Muslims have been patiently pursuing the cause of dialogue and peace while popular opinion often ignores their endeavours in favour of the bigots who command the attention of the media. But Islam has no monopoly on violence and bigotry, and we should bear in mind that a modern Muslim is more likely to be killed by a baptised Christian or Jew (or indeed another Muslim), than a non-Muslim is to be killed by a Muslim.

Many Muslims are on the defensive in our modern world with its dominance of western secular perspectives, backed up by brutal military force which is often indistinguishable from the terrorism it claims to be fighting. There is also the constant drip-drip-drip of those subtle forms of persecution that confront western Muslims in their daily encounters with a hostile society and an even more hostile media, in which the diversity and plurality of contemporary forms of Islam are subsumed beneath the perception of a blanket of violence which demands that every Muslim must prove himself or herself to be "moderate", in order to escape the accusation of terrorism. (In light of the antics of George W Bush in the name of God, one wonders why Christians are not equally under pressure to declare themselves "moderate").

At a time like this, Catholics should stand alongside those Muslims struggling to reform their own religion from within, while struggling to defend it from unjust attacks from without. We have been there, done that - still are there and doing that much of the time.

None of this is to deny that Islamist extremism is implicated in potent and terrifying forms of violence in our modern world, and every thinker has a right to debate the reasons for this, as the pope seeks to do. But, in an era dominated by the media and by violent political hostilities, those in the public eye must be aware of the need for sensitivity, even as they must also have the courage to speak out truthfully against violence and injustice.

Perhaps there was some excuse for Emperor Manuel's comments about Muhammad, given the context he was writing in. But given the context that Pope Benedict XVI is writing in, I'm not sure there is any excuse. The pope has offered a guarded apology and it is good to see that his apology has been accepted by many in the Muslim world, but one hopes that he will also reflect on his own understanding of Islam and the contribution that it has made to the development of western thought and culture.

Also in openDemocracy on themes related to Pope Benedict XVI's speech:

Judith Herrin, "How did Europe begin?"
(4 July 2001)

Patricia Crone, "What do we actually know about Mohammed?"
(31 August 2006)

If, as some suggest, this lecture has to be understood as part of the pope's attempt to affirm the Christian identity of Europe over and against its Muslim influences, then it is deeply misguided. Muslims are part of European history and they are certainly very much a part of Europe's present and future life. The Latin west owes its rediscovery of Greek philosophy, including the writings of Aristotle, partly to the work of medieval Muslim scholars, so the pope is setting up a false dichotomy. Medieval Jewish, Christian and Muslim thinkers such as Maimonides, Thomas Aquinas, Avicenna and Averroes shared a common commitment to the philosophical wisdom of the Greeks, particularly Aristotle, and these three traditions remain shaped by that wisdom.

To ignore this and focus only on the irrational and violent aspects of Islam in contrast to Catholic Christianity (thus denying Catholicism's own capacity to produce violent and irrational behaviour) constitutes a lack of irenicism in a pope whose main purpose is to affirm the importance of philosophical reasoning for intercultural dialogue.

Rather than reopening medieval animosities, one might hope that the pope will in future offer us a more hopeful vision of the possibilities for dialogue, understanding and mutual respect, based on the common influence of Greek philosophy on all three of Europe's great theological traditions.