Pope: Manuel II’s Views of Muhammad are not My Own
Muslim Brotherhood Optimistic about end of Crisis
Pope Benedict said on Sunday that the quote he had cited from Byzantine emperor Manuel II, which said that the Prophet Muhammd brought only evil and conversion by the sword, did not reflect his own views.
“I am deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries to a few passages of my address at the University of Regensburg, which were considered offensive to the sensibility of Muslims . . . These in fact were a quotation from a medieval text, which do not in any way express my personal thought. I hope this serves to appease hearts and to clarify the true meaning of my address, which in its totality was and is an invitation to frank and sincere dialogue, with mutual respect.”
Although there were protests in Iran and some scattered acts of violence, mostly in already-violent areas, this statement seemed to mollify some Muslim leaders.
A Muslim Brotherhood official in Egypt initially said that the statement was a clear retraction and sufficient as an apology, but apparently under popular pressure, he backed off that stance slightly, saying that the Pope hadn’t actually clearly apologized, though he had taken a good step toward an apology. But the Brotherhood clearly was looking for a way to defuse the crisis, and that it initially latched on to the Pope’s relatively impenitent remarks so eagerly, shows that it is eager to see things calmed down. The Egyptian MB thought the controversy was now likely to subside, and I hope they are right about that.
Some Western observers think that this episode was the Pope’s play for moral authority at a time of a clash between Islam and the West.
I think that is right. Benedict was trying to stake out a position that Western godless atheism is actually unreasonable, and that hard line coercive religion that disregards reason is wrong (he incorrectly identified this position as that of Muhammad and the Quran). Thus, the Catholic Church, with its reasoned faith, becomes the ideal, avoiding the errors of the two extremes (Western secularism and Islam). To accomplish this positioning, Benedict XVI had to reduce to cardboard figures all three traditions– Western rationalism, Roman Catholicism, and Islam.
Christianity hasn’t always stood for sweet reasonableness and the harmony of faith and science and the primacy of the individual conscience. One of the reasons we know so little about Mayan history is that Catholic authorities had Mayan papyrus rolls, which contained extensive hieroglyphic records, burned as works of the devil. It wasn’t as if the Mayans were given a choice about remaining pagan or converting to Christianity. And there was the forcible conversion to Christianity of large numbers of Muslims and Jews in Spain after the Reconquista from 1492.
Nor have all Christian theological streams concluded that human reason can comprehend God’s reason.
There have been times and places where Islam was more tolerant than Christianity. And significant Muslim theological traditions, though not the majority, have held a vision of God as in accord with human reason very similar to the one embraced by the Pope. Look at the Mu’tazili school, which has been extremely influential in Shiite Islam, and which has been favored by modernist reformers such as the Egyptian Muhammad `Abduh (d. 1905).
The problem with the Pope’s Regensburg lecture is that it laid out three intellectual traditions as unchanging, undifferentiated essences and then contrasted them with one another, to the edification of his own position. There aren’t any essences.
It is always better to put forward the virtues of your tradition on their own, without attempting invidious comparisons with, and put-downs, of others. If Christianity is superior, that can be perceived without it being necessary to brand Islam inferior.
Religious traditions are complex and multiple and often self-contradictory. Trying to play politics with them by putting down the founder of a religion with false accusations will always cause trouble, of course. But what is worse is that the allegation causing the trouble is simply inaccurate.