A Reply to the Pope
Jaafar Sheikh Idris
19 September 2006
On Sept 12, 2006, Pope Benedict XIV, delivered a lecture at the University of Regensburg. The lecture was in German but was later translated into English by the Vatican under the title, “The Three Stages in the Program of Dehellenization.”My reply is based on that translation.
The main theme of the Papal speech was the relationship between faith and reason, and it was mainly about the development of Western thought on this issue, especially in relation to Christianity. But for some obscure reason the Pope started off with something that does not at all seem relevant to his central topic. He began by quoting something which the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus of the fourteenth century said about Islam. “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 emperor is reported to have said to his educated Persian interlocutor. He is also reported to have explained this by saying, “God is not pleased by blood, and not acting reasonably (“syn logo“) 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…. To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death….”
To persuade his audience that the emperor whom the Pope describes as ‘erudite’ did not say what he said out of ignorance of the Islamic religion, the Pope goes on to say, “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.”
These statements are full of mistakes, inaccuracies, misconceptions as well as misrepresentations of the Islamic religion.
First, to deny that Muhammad came with something new and of great value, is a sign either of ignorance of his message or of blind prejudice. That Muhammad came with something new and important, especially for the people of the Book, is stated in many places in the Qur’an.
5:16. O people of the Book! There has come to you our Messenger, revealing to you much in the Book that you used to hide, and passing over much (that is now unnecessary). There has come to you from God a (new) light and a perspicuous Book.
3: 64. Say: “O People of the Book! come to common terms as between us and you: That we worship none but God, that we associate no partners with Him; that we erect not, from among ourselves, Lords and patrons other than God.
Second, the Pope says, “the decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: Not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature”. He then quotes the comments on the emperor’s words of Theodore Khoury who published and edited that dialogue, “For the emperor,” says Khoury “as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-evident.”
A person doesn’t have to be shaped by Geek philosophy to know that violent conversion and not acting in accordance to reason is something that God does not approve of. Prophet Muhammad says, “Never has violence entered into something that it did not make ugly, and never has gentleness entered into something that it did not make beautiful.” It is because of this that a Muslim is enjoined to:
16:125. Invite (all) to the Way of your Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching; and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious: for your Lord knows best, who have strayed from His Path, and who (deserve) to be guided.
Third, the verse alluded to is not of the early period as the Pope says, on the authority of his experts. It is a verse in Surat al Baqara which was revealed after the Prophet had migrated to Medina and found the support of its people, and started to engage in war against his Makkan enemies. Even the occasion on which the verse was revealed, as mentioned by authorities like Ibn Katheer, proves this. Some Medinan people who had accepted Islam, but whose sons chose to remain Jewish, thought of forcing them to join them in the new faith, but were told not to do so. Further, why would someone who is “powerless and under threat” advise his followers not to resort to force to convert people? Why would he tell them not to do something that they are not in a position to do anyway?
Fourth, this often quoted verse, is not an isolated one as the words of the Pope intimate. It emphasizes a fact that is stated in many other verses, and that constitute a fundamental Islamic teaching. This teaching is that faith resides in the heart, and that no created beings, neither Prophets nor devils, have any control over the human heart. No one except God has the power to instill faith in a person’s heart or deprive him or her of it. Prophets like Noah, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad are repeatedly reminded that their role is only to convey the message in the best of ways. They guide people to the truth only by conveying it to them, and by attempting to persuade them in the best of ways to accept it; they do not and cannot guide them by forcing them to accept it. Many verses in the Qur’an state and emphasize this fact. Here are some examples:
88.021-22: Remind them, for you are but a remembrancer. You are not at all a warder over them.
10. 99. Is it you who can compel people until they are believers ?
028.056 You do not guide whom you love (to guide), but Allah guides whom He will.
012.103 However much you are keen (on them), most people will not believe.
Would a person who is told this by the God who sent him try to force people to become believers? One might say that the Prophet did, however, engage in war with some people and did encourage Muslims to fight wars similar to his, and that these wars are called jihad. Indeed he did, but it must be clear now that he could not have done so in contravention to those clear Divine instructions. Those wars must have therefore been engaged in for reasons other than forcing people to accept the Islamic faith. This is not the place to go into the details of the circumstances that led to them or the conditions for waging war. Suffice it to say that they were waged against aggression, against all kinds of aggression: against those who attacked Muslims because of their faith; against those who used their power to try to prevent people from accepting that faith; and against those who breached the covenants they had made with Muslims. All other non-Muslims who did not fall into those categories, including Jews and Christians, did live in peace with and among Muslims from the time of the Prophet until now. Being non-Muslim has never been considered by itself a reason for killing someone. Even organizations like al-Qaida give other justifications for their attacks on those whom they attacked.
Fifth, in his attempt to make the Christian faith compatible with reason, the Pope had to fall back on the interpretations of those, like the emperor, who attempted to marry Christianity with Greek philosophy.
A profound encounter of faith and reason is taking place here, an encounter between genuine enlightenment and religion. From the very heart of Christian faith and, at the same time, the heart of Greek thought now joined to faith, Manuel II was able to say: Not to act “with logos” is contrary to God’s nature
This means that the nature of God becomes contrary to unreasonableness only if, with the help of Greek philosophy, God is identified with Logos,
Modifying the first verse of the Book of Genesis, John began the prologue of his Gospel with the words: “In the beginning was the ‘logos’ ”.
In the beginning was the Logos, and Logos is God, says the Evangelist
This means that the God whose nature is compatible with reason is not the traditional God of Christianity. It is not God the Father, or God the Son, or God the Holy Ghost, or a combination of the three. The Pope must have had to resort to this understanding of God that identifies Him with reason because he cannot say about the traditional God of Christianity that unreasonableness is contrary to His nature. He cannot say so because he knows that unreasonableness characterizes the traditional conception of the nature of that God. This has always been Islam’s main objection to Christianity. The Qur’an tells them that the claim that God has a son is not compatible with reason and cannot therefore be compatible with God’s true nature. To explain this let us start with a preliminary understanding of God, an understanding that is shared by almost all those who believe in His existence. The minimum that they say about Him is that He is the Creator.
The Qur’anic arguments against God being a father are based on this essential attribute of Him. These arguments can be paraphrased as follows:
Firstly, if God is the creator of every thing He must be the creator of the person called His son. A father does not however, create his child, he begets it. One cannot be a father of someone whom He creates.
Secondly, a father can have a son only if he has a wife, “How can He have a child seeing that He has no spouse?” says the Qur’an. Muslims agree with the Christians that Mary is Jesus’ mother. But Mary is not God’s spouse; she is one of His creation.
Thirdly, If God is the creator of everything, He is necessarily self-sufficient. But if He is self-sufficient, He is not in need of having a child. “They say that God has a child. Exalted above that be He. He is the Self-sufficient,” says the Qu’ran.
Fourthly, This problem is further aggravated by the belief that Jesus is coeternal with God the Father. How can someone who is coeternal with another be his child? A child must necessarily come after its father.
Fifthly, Christians also believe that Jesus died and was resurrected. How can someone who is eternal, who has no beginning, die? Muslim intellectuals have long ago pointed to the logical truth that eternity (having no beginning) logically implies everlastingness (having no end). Why? Because a being that has no beginning is necessarily self-sufficient; that it does not depend for its existence on something outside itself. It cannot therefore cease to exist, because a thing ceases to exist only when it lacks some of the external conditions of its existence. But if it is itself the cause of its existence, it cannot cease to exist.
When faced with such rational arguments, some Christians retort by saying, “but you are taking the word “son” literally” OK, we say, we will not quarrel with you over words. Give us the non-literal meaning of ‘son’ that is immune from those contradictions. That non-literal meaning has never been forthcoming.
Sixth. In Islam we do not have to resort to any source outside God’s Book to prove that faith is compatible with reason because this compatibility is demanded by faith itself. The Qur’an acknowledges the testimony of rational principles, of empirical evidence and of sound moral values, and uses them to prove that it is the word of God.
The Qu’ran says about itself in 4:82 that, “had it been from other than God they would have found therein much discrepancy”
It censures those who deny the testimony of the senses, in 6:7 “If We had sent down to you a written (message) on parchment, so that they could touch it with their hands, the Unbelievers would have been sure to say: “This is nothing but obvious magic!”
It stresses the fact that God enjoins good and never does he enjoin shameful deeds. In 16:90, it reads, “God commands justice, the doing of good, and liberality to kith and kin, and He forbids all shameful deeds, and injustice and rebellion: He instructs you, that ye may receive admonition”
Biblical scholars tell us however that there are many contradictions in the New Testament and that there are factual mistakes in it. The Old Testament imputes to prophets like Lot and David the sort of immoral behavior that only the most deviant of human beings would commit. It is partly because of this that many people, including some Christians and Jews, no longer believe that every thing in the Bible is the word of God.
Seventh, the Pope quotes professor Khoury as saying, “But for Muslim teaching God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality.”
God is indeed absolutely transcendent, and cannot therefore be bound by any thing external to himself. He is the creator of everything including our categories. But being absolutely free from any external influence does not mean that His actions are haphazard, that he says or does something that is contrary to the reason with which He endowed us. God is absolutely free, but His actions are governed by His attributes of perfection. He does not therefore contradict himself; he does not enjoin something that is immoral, he does not say something that is belied by the empirical facts which He himself created. Can He do otherwise? Of course He can, and He is praised because He can, and because He chose not to behave in ways that are contrary to reason or moral principles. This has to be so. You do not praise someone for not doing an evil that he is incapable of doing anyway.
Eighth, true religion is a religion based on a message from God conveyed to us by His chosen Messengers. Our task is to endeavour to understand this message and to act according to its dictates. We may make mistakes in doing so, but we should not intentionally make any changes in it by additions or subtractions, because once you do this you will not be following a divinely revealed message but a message of your own making. “O Messenger, convey what has been sent down to you from your Lord; if you do not you will not be conveying His Message.”
A religion that is tampered with becomes a man-made religion, an ideology like any other secular ideology. But this tampering is what Jews and Christians have always been accustomed to doing. And this is exactly what the Pope is now doing with what has remained of Christianity. He wants to mould it into a Eurocentric ideology of which Greek philosophy and the renaissance are inseparable elements. What about Christians in other parts of the world whose cultures have no affinity to European thought? Would they now be obliged to study this thought and make it part of a religion which they know had its origin in the East?
It might be said that some Muslims are now doing the same with their religion. Indeed they are. But the consolation is that their attempts are futile. Islam is a religion that God promised to preserve and make available for truth seekers until the end of this world. “It is we who sent down the message and it is we who will preserve it.” The original text of the Qur’an will always be available; the Sunnah of the Prophet that explains it will always be preserved. And there will always be honest learned people who would present this religion as it truly is. There will be deviations from this truth, and there will be many people who would believe in and follow them; but those deviations will never replace a truth that God has promised to preserve. He has preserved it for fourteen hundred years, and is sure to continue preserving it for the rest of time on this earth.