The Pope and Islam


As I wrote yesterday, I wrote extensively about the Pope's remarkable recent address on reason and faith and Islam as soon as the text was released. You can read my analysis here and here. I do not believe that the issue is an inflammatory quote or some unfortunate misunderstanding. Benedict said something in his own words that are at the center of the controversy:

In the seventh conversation ("diálesis" - controversy) edited by professor Khoury, the emperor touches on the theme of the jihad (holy war). The emperor must have known that sura 2:256 reads: "There is no compulsion in religion." It is one of the suras 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.

The obvious inference from the pope is that the Koran does indeed sanction violence, i.e. "holy war," in the cause of its own religion; and that the passages about peace can be explained in part by the fact that they belong to the early days of Islam, when Muhammed had no other practical option. Subsequently, Muhammed endorsed and practised war. One thing you can say about Jesus: he didn't kill anyone, however bloodthirsty his subsequent followers might have been. Today, in many Muslim countries, apostasy remains subject to the death penalty. That in itself is the use of murderous violence to impose faith. Christianity has, of course, been just as bad in the past. But it has reformed itself. Moreover, the nature of the Muslim revelation, according to Benedict, is that it was God's word channeled unmediated through the Prophet. The Christian tradition of logos or reason does not therefore have the same salience in Islam, according to the Pope. A Muslim reformation, Benedict seems to say, is very unlikely because of the intrinsic irrationality of Islam.

I will pass on the ironies of this Pope commending reason in faith. He has done a great deal to stifle reason within the Church by policing and suppressing free debate. But his fundamental point about Islam and logos cannot be dismissed as a glitch or merely bad manners. I'm not a scholar of Islam and so I am not prepared to say whether his appraisal of the role of reason and violence in Islam is accurate. But it's pretty clear that he's saying something substantive about the core meaning of Islam. And the violent reaction of some Muslims to his address doesn't exactly prove him wrong, does it?

(Photo: Wolfgang Radke/AP.)